By Todd Andre
In a social world submerged in wireless techno-gadgets and digitally distanced Facebook friends, it takes someone on the edge of cyberculture to help us understand modern life.
That person is the University of Calgary’s Dr. Maria Bakardjieva.
“I was an outsider,” said Bakardjieva. “It wasn’t part of the culture that I came from. I was like an anthropologist coming to study a new culture.”
Bakardjieva, explained she collided with new Internet technologies upon her arrival in Canada in 1993.
“People were exchanging emails instead of Facebook pages,” she said. “I felt like I was completely out of it and now, I hear the same thing about Facebook. It was the medium that they chose to organize their lives.”
Bulgaria and Canada were going in separate directions when Bakardjieva decided to pursue a doctorate at Simon Fraser University in the early ’90s. Canada was seizing hold of the optimism of the coming information age, while Bulgaria was reeling from the economic aftereffects of the crumbling Soviet Union –its largest trade partner.
Coming to Canada was like travelling to another planet, one whose inhabitants seemed almost subservient to its technologies, she explained.
“It was the dawn of the age of the Internet, so I took a course to see what was going on,” said Bakardjieva from the comfort of her office chair, which sits next to the blank screen of her broken PC. “I was incredulous and skeptical to the change that was going on at the time.”
Her skepticism was a refreshing counter-balance to the utopian and dystopian theories of the information age at the time. Even today, we have seen the media either blame user-involved Web 2.0 technologies, like social networking sites, for the erosion of society, or praise its potential to spur a positive societal overhaul, she noted.
“We hear so much hype, I feel the necessity as a researcher to seek out the everydayness of them,” she said. “I don’t want to ride the hype wave, I want to be the one un-hyping it.”
Bakardjieva has been un-hyping the Internet at the U of C since she accepted an assistant professor position in 2000. Her research explores how people without technological expertise use the Internet in their everyday lives. She arranges interviews and focus groups with people to find out how they understand computers in their lives, how they define these technologies in their lives and what meaning they have to them. Opposed to the traditional top-down approach popular in academic theory, Bakardjieva investigates how “ordinary” people think about the information ageÂ by asking them. Her research led to a 2005 book entitled Internet Society: The Internet in Everyday Life, which received honourable mention in the American Sociological Association’s book of the year contest.
However, the more technocratic our society becomes, the more difficult it is for her to single out an ordinary user. A recent study by Toronto’s Solutions Research Group found that 59 per cent of Canadians feel anxious without the Internet. We are hooked into the Internet whether we like it or not.
What might our information-saturated environment be doing to us, asked Bakardjieva. She hasn’t found anything apocalyptic yet, but we may have become more cynical about the information we consume.
“How people construct knowledge in and for their everyday lives is a very different process than what we used before,” she explained. “Before, there were libraries, experts, et cetera. Now, we can immediately check the information that we want. [However,] people are skeptical about almost everything they find online. There is a desire to triple-check.”
She also sees political potential in technologies like Facebook, despite their documented failure to mobilize action. Bakardjieva called this sub-activism: the desire to position yourself within larger public issues, but the lack of desire to act on these positions.
“Calgary has one of the highest penetrations of the Internet but that has not led us to higher political participation,” she said. “It is more identity work, not public work. In a quieter, submerged, less overt manner, people are positioning themselves politically and you can see how that can be mobilized.”
Currently, Bakardjieva is continuing her research on the Internet and everyday life, but is focusing on emerging Web 2.0 trends like blogging, MySpace and Facebook.