Establishing Distinctions: OFFTIME sits down with Sarah Genner

sarah genner offtime interview

This week, we had the pleasure of inviting Sarah Genner over for an exchange of ideas, and a little Q&A. Sarah Genner is a researcher in the field of media psychology- but hails from a diverse academic background that also includes media studies, communications, political science, and linguistics. She’s about to complete her PhD at Zurich University, and in September she’ll take up a guest posting at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

OFFTIME:  Can you tell us about your research background, and what you’re currently focusing on?

Sarah Genner: My research essentially explores the Internet, society, and their effects on each other. I wrote my Master’s thesis on how the Internet shapes politics and the public sphere. After that, I got more interested in media education, digital media’s effects on children, and how to educate parents so they can be better at guiding their kids in the digital world. My current research focus questions how we can deal with being constantly connected, taking into consideration both the opportunities and the risks involved. Do people feel like they need to find ways to go offline? Do they think it’s bad for their health, or bad for privacy reasons? What about its effect on concentration in schools, or at their jobs? These are the kinds of questions I’m looking into.

OFFTIME: So what are the distinct attitudes that comprise the on/off discourse, and what’s your take on it?

SG:  There’s an underlying dualism that seems to dominate the discussion. One position is that off is always better than on. People who occupy this kind of position usually take the stance that being online is not being in touch with reality. Of course, you’ll also find people who take up an opposing view to this more technosceptic perspective, and whole-heartedly endorse digital benefits. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It’s not about on being better than off, or whether technology is more beneficial than detrimental- it’s about looking closer at the motivations behind instances of technology use, and examining the individual’s situation. In fact the on/off discourse is fundamentally shaped by people’s personalities, and their particular situation or context. This is a point that’s been neglected.  For example, somebody who’s living away from home might spend x hours online per week keeping in touch with family members, while somebody else spends the same amount of time online scrolling through social media feeds while neglecting their tasks at work or during conversations with friends who are physically present. Needless to say, the motivations and effects of these two use cases aren’t really comparable. Similarly, in some studies, it’s clear that a crucial difference lies in whether a person is an integrator or a separator. For some people it’s not so important that the line between work-life and private-life are blurring. But some people need to keep their work and private lives separate. Obviously where you stand on this spectrum will greatly affect your attitude towards the on/off debate, and technology in general. Even factors such as one’s occupation play defining roles in shaping the discussion. Creatives, for example, use technology in different ways from doctors, and therefore experience a different set of opportunities and risks.

OFFTIME: So commentators need to stop making these sweeping claims such as ‘spending x number of hours online is bad for you’. Before we make any kind of claim, we need to know who’s spending time online, and why.

SG: Exactly. We’re not all going to suffer burnout, or depression, or other health issues. People keep talking about it as if everyone is equally affected, which assumes everyone is the same. We need to adopt a  more fine-grained approach. We need to make distinctions.

OFFTIME: What can we do on a more practical, day-to-day level to push the discourse forward?

SG: We need to encourage explicit discussions about where we want our limits to be, rather than working with implicit assumptions. There’s a lack of communication between family members, friends, and colleagues in establishing what is appropriate behaviour. We need parents to explicitly lay down parameters that inform their children when, where, and how they can get in touch when they’re at work, and we need colleagues to explicitly let each other know what kind of contact they’re okay with on the weekends and evenings. Otherwise, we’re just working with assumptions, and that’s where you can see how technology can be draining. People constantly overstep invisible barriers, so I think making these limits explicit is crucial. What we need right now is to find good social behaviour concerning connectivity.

OFFTIME: Right, and the irony here is that we lack communication in establishing the social protocols surrounding communication tools. In the past, we’ve been striving to get everybody connected, but now (almost) all of us are digitally intertwined, what do you think the priorities are? 

SG: Well, we used to be so focused on economic growth only. We pushed things too far, discovered the disadvantages of environmental destruction, and now we’re looking for sustainability. The same is happening with technology and the Internet. We wanted constant connectivity, and perhaps now, we’re reaching a point where we start to notice drawbacks, and we’re looking for a healthy balance. Finding this balance needs to happen on different levels- on an individual level, at work, and at home. Essentially though, it’s about understanding yourself, what you’re comfortable with, and what you need in these different environments. Once we start becoming more conscious of these things, we’ll be heading in the right direction.

OFFTIME: What kinds of solutions exist that might resolve the debate between on and off-line living?

Obviously, this is not the first technological issue that humanity has faced so far. Think about discussions from antiquity, like Plato warning people that writing would affect our memories, and similar debates on TV and in movies, and how they affect our children and foster violence. We’re in the middle of the connectivity hype right now, but it’ll subside, and we’ll see that we found ways to adapt. I think in 10 years there won’t be so much discussion about this anymore. But while we are waiting for this to happen, we better start talking about productive and healthy ways to connect and disconnect.

OFFTIME: What role do you think OFFTIME’s plays in the discussion? 

SG: It’s the perfect bridge between on and off. We don’t have to stick to this out-dated dualism, but can be both on and off at the same time. It really seems like an effective tool for people to manage their connectivity and find the balance we spoke about by letting through what they want and need, but keeping out what they don’t. Having these applications also helps us to discuss the issues, which is interesting given that they’re fundamentally social issues. These technical solutions really help to facilitate the dialogue and debate.

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