My current work falls under two major headings; the findings of my ethnography, and wrestling with the ethics of ethnographic methods online.
In my ethnography, I approached digital detoxing like I think most people would, asking; “Does it work?” “Do people change their digital use when they get home?” But rather than attending a detox as an intervention for digital addiction, my participants were attending it as just one step on a long journey towards spiritual self-improvement. My forthcoming thesis argues that perceptions of the modern world lead to a new form of digital “re-enchantment,” and that detoxers imitate ancient, tribal belonging, in pursuit of individual psychological and spiritual self-improvement. Digital detoxers congregate on Facebook after the detox, showing that tech use or non-use is not central for them; instead, a sense of community, and “intentional” digital use is what matters more.
At this point, we don’t have scientific evidence that digital technology is directly harmful or addictive. Yet at the same time, people viscerally feel anxious and tethered to their devices in a way that makes them unhappy. Part of my work is emphasising the “social fact” of dissatisfaction with technology, that if we feel it is damaging, then in a way, it is. But I argue that technology works against different individual and cultural values in different places. In the modern West, we are worried about our mental health, our freedom and choice, and the authenticity of our experiences. Many people are now trying to reassert themselves against both exploitative technology design and the social norms that have solidified around ambient digital presence.
During my fieldwork, I used social media as part of my ethnographic study of the community, and I used my own social media profiles to connect with my participants. Digital elements like this constitute a new kind of ethnographic work, adding new ethical quandaries to the already complicated picture of fieldwork. I recently spoke at LSE and at Oxford’s OxDEG about these very issues, and I’m writing with The New Ethnographer to provide tips for early career researchers entering the field.