The Rock Ethics Institute

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Configuring User Identity

When Apr 20, 2005
from 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Where 102 Chambers Building
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Assistant Professor, Information Science and Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

Phoebe Sengers is an assistant professor in Information Science and Science & Technology Studies at Cornell, where she leads the Culturally Embedded Computing group. She develops culturally embedded systems; i.e., new kinds of interactive technology that respond to and encourage critical reflection on the place of technology in culture. She uses insights from cultural analysis of IT to identify and rethink the assumptions underlying technologies, to build new applications for computing, including systems to support personal reflection on emotional and social experiences, and to develop new techniques for designing systems, including the use of self-experiment in design and new forms of evaluation for open-ended systems.

Previously, she worked at the Media Arts Research Studies group at the GMD Institute for Media Communication in Bonn, Germany and was a Fulbright Scholar at the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany. In August 1998, she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a self-defined interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and Cultural Theory (administered jointly by the Department of Computer Science and the Program in Literary and Cultural Theory).

Phoebe Sengers' Web site

Configuring User Identity

Over the last century, Information Technology (IT) has become a ubiquitous part of both academic practices and everyday culture. In the process, our day-to-day use of computing artifacts influences the meaning and structure of everyday activities and, concomitantly, how we understand our experiences, agency, and selves. In this talk, I will analyze, drawing on insights from critical theory, science and technology studies, and human-computer interaction, how human identity is represented in and shaped by our interactions with IT.

  • How are human experiences represented and shaped through IT?
  • What kinds of ideas of and assumptions about human experience are built into IT practices? What kinds are systematically left out? How does this reflect the broader sociocultural context in which IT is created?
  • To what extent do IT artifacts, intentionally or unintentionally, shape the experiences and identities of their target users? To what extent do users alter, expand on, and hijack these through their use of IT in their own lives?
  • What responsibility do IT designers have for shaping user experience and sense of self?

I will argue, following Althusser, that, not only the practices of technology-building, but actual software and hardware artifacts themselves function in the context of our everyday cultural practices as ideological state apparatuses to reproduce identities that stabilize our state. Given that technologies function as ideological state apparatuses, and that a central goal of the critical project is to reveal the workings of ideological state apparatuses and thereby support individuals' ability to maintain critical freedom in their actions, I will argue that technologies can and should be designed to support critical reflection. I will illustrate how this works by describing several on-going projects by myself and others that attempt to offer users opportunities to reflect on, rather than uncritically accept, the identities technology offers to them.

Professor Sengers will be joined by Shay David, Ph.D. student, Science and Technology Studies; and Joseph "Jofish" Kaye, Ph.D. student, Information Science.