Blog Post

Interview with Jill Walker Rettberg, Author of "Seeing Ourselves through Technology"

Earlier this month, I wrote a review of Jill Walker Rettberg's newest book, published by Palgrave, Seeing Ourselves through Technology. Dr. Rettberg, Professor in the Department of Linguistic, Literary, and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Bergen, kindly responded to some follow-up questions to the book review via e-mail. My questions appear in italics.

Image of Jill Walker Rettberg courtesy University of Bergen faculty website.

Q: Your book often makes the distinction between self-representation and self-expression. Would you be able to expand on this distinction more, clarifying where self-representation ends and self-expression begins?

There are many ways of defining these terms, but I wanted to emphasise the difference between expressions that are primarily intended for others and expressions that are more about exploring yourself. For instance, many people who write traditional, personal diaries never intend others to read them, so they are mostly working on self-expression rather than self-representation. People use selfies that they never share in the same way. At other times, we take a selfie or write about our experiences or share a Runkeeper workout on Facebook and clearly intend they to be seen by an audience. In these cases we are creating self-representations that we hope will let others see us in the way that we wish. Of course there are many situations between thepse two poles, but I think we have seen too much focus on self-representation and not enough on the ways in which we also use digital media to explore ourselves, without always thinking about how others will see us.

Q: One of the book’s most powerful examples of misunderstanding how self-expression works online is in the discussion of the Kellers’ response to Adams’ tweets. You suggest that the Kellers’ critical approach to Adams’ work was inappropriate because it didn’t take into account the fact that Adams is writing in real time as a “real person” rather than a celebrity. For scholars working on materials like microblogs, tweets, or other serialized forms, what kinds of methods might you suggest they use in order to engage responsibly with online texts and the people behind those texts?

This is such a difficult question. I began my career as a researcher as a grad student in comparative literature, and from that perspective, an online text is a text that has been published and can be analysed without thinking about the author. An ethnographer or a sociologist would be more interested in the person who wrote the text, or would use the text as a way of understand the people and the communities, which is a very different perspective. Because people with such different methodologies are analysing the same texts, it gets really confusing. Should we all be bound by the same kinds human subject committees and research ethics protocols, no matter how we intend to analyse the texts? My approach is to analyse the texts and their genres and aesthetics and reception and not try to use them to understand the people who wrote them, but when taking this approach with online, self-published texts it is imperative to consider the people who wrote the texts as well. I wouldn't write about texts posted by vulnerable people or people with very few followers who have an expectation of obscurity, or if I did it would only be in a very general way where you couldn't possibly identify an individual. Many people who publish their own work online are artists, performers and authors in their own right and it would be ridiculous to anonymise their work in the way an ethnographer trying to understand their motivations might need to. I have no hesitation in citing something like Rebecca Brown's time-lapse selfies, which are very personal but clearly meant for a large audience, and have nearly 10 million views on YouTube ( Brown's project may have started as self-exploration but has very clearly become an act of self-representation.

Q: You write a bit about gamification and the ways that self-tracking apps in particular gamify self-improvement, even if the end goal is constantly coming up with another goal. To what extent do you think this gamification encourages users to participate? That is, do you think gamification that constantly strives towards playing a similar game over and over again actually works?

It works for some of us! Actually hugely popular games like World of Warcraft have "grinding" as a major part of their gameplay. Grinding means doing a repetitive task again and again to earn enough points to get to the next level so you can do something more interesting. Games have a surprising amount in common with work. Of course some players buy their way out of grinding by buying characters that are already levelled up. But most just do it. When I played World of Warcraft I found there was a strange satisfaction between the boredom of grinding and an almost meditative state you got into. It's so simple. You just do it again and again and you are guaranteed to level up, eventually. A lot of fitness apps play with this same mechanism.

Q: I’m very interested in what you describe as the “fantasy of knowing” that drives much of the self-quantification movement. Can we pinpoint the origin of this fantasy and, if so, where? What are the implications of this fantasy’s persistence?

Well, the fantasy of knowing goes back at least to the ancient Greeks and the Delphic maxim to "Know thyself", and perhaps much further, to the idea of a god or gods who know all. Knowledge has always held power. But today our understanding is far more precise than in earlier times. We imagine that we can know ourselves as an accountant can look over the numbers and be sure that so much came in, so much was paid out. Ben Grosser, who created the Demetricator plugin for Facebook that strips away the numbers from your likes, talks about the "audit culture" of social media where we think we can audit ourselves as an accountant audits a company's finances. Grosser and many others tie this to capitalism. Others specifically connect it to neo-liberalism. I worry that the focus on numbers alone is reductionist. But last week I was at a workshop where Tamar Sharon, who is researching the quantified self, pointed out that numbers can be non-reductionist as well ( There are things that can be better expressed in numbers. Simply discarding the pleasure that many do seem to find in quantifying themselves is too simple.

Q: You do a seamless job of incorporating evidence in this book from novels, personal experience, and of course, scholarship from a variety of disciplines, including the social sciences and the humanities. What kind of methodology frames your research that allows you to draw on such a diverse set of sources to support for your argument?

I started off in comparative literature and also studied art history and media and communications, so I am used to thinking through literature and art. But when I was a grad student in the mid-nineties, very few comparative literature scholars or art histories or even media and communications scholars were even remotely interested in the digital. I found others interested in the digital online and at conferences that were multidisciplinary. I went to conferences with computer scientists, poets, ethnologists and philosophers. Today there is so much more research on the digital that you could be a digital sociologist or a scholar of electronic literature and never need to read work outside of your own discipline. I'm the kind of person who loves making connections, so I love to seek new perspectives and see how things fit together. I think it's important to keep some of the cross-disciplinarity of early research on the digital.

Q: By the end of the book, you claim that selfies and self-trackers allow us to rely only on ourselves to represent us rather than others. In what ways do you think we can help our students become critical producers and consumers of technology to maintain this agency? How do we maintain your optimism towards concerns with surveillance and privacy, in other words?

I think simply discussing these issues with our students is key! Schools and parents have trained this generation to assume that constantly being surveilled is simply the way the natural state of the world. We don't let kids play at the park on their own and we insist that teens give us passwords to their social media accounts. In Illinois they just passed an act stating that schools can require students to give up their passwords on social media if they're suspected of cyberbullying. Apple's new family sharing has constant GPS tracking of your kids' phones as the default. Students need to hear their teachers talk about the dark sides of surveillance, and to be encouraged to discuss the balances between freedom, privacy and security. We need to help them think about what they share, how they share it and who they share it with - particularly the data that we don't really intend to share. I honestly think this is one of the most important tasks for the humanities in the coming years. The technology is being developed so fast that we aren't stopping to think about the consequences - we just adopt it. I love technology. My six year old is begging me for a Tinitell wristband-telephone for kids that lets parents track their whereabouts - and I can see why she thinks it sounds cool. And hey, she's at an age where she'd still love me to be next to her constantly. She's thrilled at the idea of me always knowing where she is. I trust that by the time she's ten or fourteen she'll feel differently.

We need to be optimistic. Critically optimistic. That's the only way we can build a better world.


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