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Eric P. S. Baumer is a research associate
at Cornell University. His research involves
designing technologies to foster critical and
reflective thinking, as well as leveraging the
interplay among use(rs) and non-use(rs) to
expose normative beliefs around the roles
technology does and should play in society.
Jenna Burrell is a professor in the School
of Information at UC Berkeley. Her interests
include theories of materiality, user agency,
transnationalism, post-colonial relations,
digital representation, and especially the
appropriation of IC Ts by individuals and groups
on the African continent.
Morgan G. Ames is a postdoctoral scholar at
UC Irvine. She has examined the cultural history
and the on-the-ground “use” (and non-use) of
the One Laptop Per Child project. She has also
explored non-use and techno-resistant identities
among families of diverse socioeconomic levels
and among college students.
Jed R. Brubaker is a Ph.D. candidate at UC
Irvine. He has studied non-use resulting from
technology abandonment as well as the death
of social media users, and is researching the
relationships between individuals and systems
in the co-performance of “use.”
Paul Dourish is a member of the CHI
Academy and professor of Informatics at UC
Irvine, with courtesy appointments in computer
science and anthropology. His research focuses
on understanding information technology as a
site of social and cultural production.
In a related vein, non-use can also
provide new ways to account for the
rhetoric of technological development.
Some in the workshop pointed to the
framing, common in many Silicon
Valley narratives, of (information
and communication) technology as a
panacea that can solve virtually any
problem and improve quality of life
for virtually any person. Non-use
could provide a counter-narrative
to that technological panacea—that
there are times when not using a
technology may in fact be desirable.
Some recent commentary has drawn
attention to this point, arguing that
voluntary technological disconnection
often is done largely in the service of
“recharging” to enable more effective
subsequent reconnection [ 6].
In many ways, the differences
between these two narratives are
reminiscent of the “digital imperative”
[ 7] that technological adoption and
proliferation is not only desirable
but unavoidable. Studying non-use
can problematize this imperative,
calling into question the fundamental
premise of both the value and the
unavoidability of such technologies.
In some ways, this critique may also
apply to the narrative of the digital
divide, that unequal distribution
of technology creates haves and
have-nots, and that the best way of
ameliorating such inequalities is
greater technological saturation and
penetration. What if, however, those
who do not use a technology do so not
from a lack of opportunity but rather
from a lack of desire? What if certain
individuals or groups prefer to stay on
the far side of the digital divide?
These tensions bring us back to
the matter of agency in non-use. In
line with much current research,
the workshop papers and discussion
tended to emphasize contexts
where technology use represented
a path of least resistance that non-
users consciously and intentionally
negotiated. Involuntary non-use
was much less present but is just as
important: As Wyatt exclaimed,
“There is still a digital divide,
people!” Perhaps placing these
rich accounts of negotiated and
considered non-use, often as a
response to a state of too much
connectivity, in conversation with
forms of involuntary exclusion
from technology use can help to
progress and evolve the conversation
beyond current ways of framing or
understanding digital divides.
Finally, what is the symptomatology
of non-use? That is, of what underlying
condition is non-use symptomatic?
This question might be approached in
(at least) two ways. First, we can ask
why various forms of non-use occur as
social practices. Here, one might argue
that cycles of non-use and overuse [ 8]
are symptomatic of a broader lack of
ability to control the information flows
in which one is involved. Second, we
might ask of what underlying academic
condition is our scholarly interest
in non-use symptomatic? In some
ways, this is a question about why this
workshop was held and its implications
for the field more broadly.
Ultimately, a number of workshop
participants wondered aloud
whether we were discussing the same
phenomenon under the banner of non-use or rather a collection of disparate
phenomena. Are these different cases of
non-use so far-flung that they should be
treated independently, or can they be
seen as separate instances of a broader
category of sociotechnical practice?
On the one hand, meditating
Buddhists, the visually impaired,
the digitally excluded, the Amish,
and disconnecting teens may each
have (perhaps drastically) disparate
motivations for and practices of
non-use. On the other hand, we
suggest that the analytic concepts
aspects, rhetorical analyses, ecological
approaches, and so on—suggest that
work in each of these areas can benefit
from mutual engagement. Such work
may find common ground in developing
a critical language that problematizes
use, users, and the inevitability of
technology spread. Furthermore, the
questions raised earlier—about agency,
the digital imperative, the constitution
of “the user,” and others—suggest
paths for future contributions. Studying
non-use in its various forms can help us
reconsider foundational questions about
what we mean when we talk about use
and users in studying human-computer
interaction and sociotechnical systems.
DOI: 10.1145/2723667 COPYRIGHT HELD BY AUTHORS. PUBLICATION RIGHTS LICENSED TO ACM. $15.00