This is an extract from a mini-ethnography I did of an East London household of three young people, focusing on their use of technology.
One of the recurring practices observed in the household was the retention of gadgets with overlapping functionality, sometimes to the point of redundancy. Older, disused, and broken hardware is held in storage indefinitely in a manner that would be highly unlikely for kitchen hardware or furniture. This is explained by a high deterioration rate — devices regularly break or become unreliable, in which case an older device can re-emerge from obsolescence — and the rapid purchase cycle for new devices. The two factors are not strictly linked, a new device does not necessarily arrive in the house in response to the breakdown of a predecessor, but rather as an upgrade, and the predecessor continues to circulate in the house’s hardware ecosystem, drifting towards the periphery.
When approaching the living room, the first visible object by the door is a set of electronic musical instruments that connect to the XBox. It later becomes clear the instruments are rarely used, and even the XBox itself is struggling to justify its continued presence. The cluster of gadgets in the living room is brimming with redundancy, most notably with the DVD player, a device which provides a functionality entirely available on the multi-purpose machine affectionately referred to as “the Monster.” The Monster and the XBox both provide access to a selection of role-playing and strategy games, with different titles but overlapping styles and gaming mechanics. The Monster’s non-gaming functionality, such as browser, video, and music, is all replicated on other devices. Bryo characterised it thus: “there are the same eight or so apps on the mobile, the laptop, and the TV [plugged into the Monster].” Each device comes with a distinct set of affordances, the mobile is mobile, the laptop offers a bigger screen without dominating a room, and the TV offers a bigger screen still. Despite these nuances, most of the house’s digital activity is essentially device agnostic, deciding which device to use when checking one of the “eight or so apps” involves finding one that is close to hand, available, charged or powered, functioning, and hooked up with Internet connectivity.
This device-agnostic understanding of some apps is documented in Bryo’s communications diary. Over a three day period, he recorded 18 instances of an activity he describes as “Timeline,” which involves reading the updates of friends on Twitter and Facebook. Exactly half of those instances (9) were conducted on his smartphone, and half (9) were conducted on computers (ie devices other than his smartphone). When it came to checking his emails, most instances (15) were on computers, but some (3) were on the smartphone, and one instance was described as “mixed” between smartphone and laptop, with the alert function of the phone being used to complement the keyboard and large screen of the laptop. More broadly, the same style of communication took place across different platforms. Of the smartphone communications, 9 were characterized as “active” and 8 as “passive.” This is strikingly similar in breakdown to that of non-smartphone communications, 12 of which were “active” and 10 “passive.” This undermined an early thesis of this researcher, that the afffordances of smartphones encouraged users to engage passively with technology.
Between them the housemates have experienced a wide array of regular hardware breakdown in the recent past, but none appeared surprised or irritated by this. This acceptance of deterioration, and the unpredictable variety of things that might go wrong with a device, partly explain why the housemates maintain a substantial level of redundancy in their hardware. The printer in Anlo’s bedroom, still in occasional use, is insured by the presence of a second printer in Bryo and Amma’s bedroom, completely unused.
Less easy to explain is the tendency to hold onto devices after they have broken. Anlo maintains possession of a desktop computer with a broken hard drive, a netbook with a virus, and an mp3 player with non-functional battery. Bryo’s previous laptop has a broken power-cable jack, and despite his plans to get it fixed, it continues to live unused and unusable underneath his bed. This sometimes pays off. When I first met Amma, she informed me that she didn’t know where her netbook was but didn’t mind because it was “so shit I’m going to get rid of it.” But the netbook lived on in the periphery of the household, and two months later it was back in use, rehabilitated by Amma’s decision to write a novel.
The smartphone is enjoyed for its novelty and convenience, but not treasured. Expectations of long-term resilience are minimal. Bryo has a Samsung Galaxy S2, powered by Android. It is his third smartphone in as many years. The regular purchase of new phones is incorporated into his phone bill and he described getting a new phone as “just an upgrade.” His previous phone was a HTC Wildfire S, he gave it away to a friend who found himself without a smartphone. Previous to that he had a HTC Desire, a 2010 top-end smartphone which is now verging on obsolescence. That phone was discarded because it had a production flaw.
The accumulation of redundant devices tends to result from the purchase of fashionable or exciting multi-purpose devices which do the same job as older single-purpose devices. The inverse does not seem to occur, functions already fulfilled by multi-purpose devices are rarely complemented with the purchase of single-purpose devices. For example, the house has no landline phone, despite landline being included in their phone/tv/Internet package from Virgin Media, because all three residents have smartphones with established phone numbers. The single-purpose devices tend to be legacy items, and tend to drift out of use, circulating on the fringes of the household, some held as contingency for the breakdown of core devices. Amma has a five-year-old iPod nano (though she doesn’t know where it is) and a digital camera, and saw no need to get rid of them even though they duplicated functionality of her smartphone. She also had an e-reader, but upon last discussion it was lingering in a relative’s house, where it had been left six weeks previously. Other single-purpose devices like alarm clocks, radios, and music players are rare, largely replaced by mobiles. Novel single-purpose devices, such as electronic photo frames, were absent.
The householders have a positive and aspirational mindset about building and maintaining their systems in a hands-on way. This is best demonstrated by The Monster, a large desktop computer in the living room from the high-end line of Dell gaming computers known as Alienware. About three years ago, Bryo bought the components separately, and assembled the final computer with a more savvy friend. The parts cost about £1800. In a similar vein, the householders are reluctant to throw out old wires and chargers, keeping them in case they can be reused with other devices.
However, some of these aspirations are undone by busy schedules and inertia. Bryo remarked that the router, a stock Virgin Media Hub, is underperforming and needs to be replaced, but he hasn’t yet done it “despite it being such an easy job.” In other scenarios, financial comfort means the householders are happy to purchase rather than fix. Bryo remarked about an old computer that he “was going to get it fixed but was happy to get a new one.” Rather than delete old digital material, Anlo uses an external hard drive for overflow storage. He found it easier to solve the problem with money rather than time, and the thinking is decidedly short term — he has no backup of the information on the hard drive, and was unfazed by the prospect of losing the data to a hardware error.
With high levels of duplication and redundancy, digital devices are acquired and managed in a manner quite unlike that of kitchen hardware, furniture, or household electronics unrelated to communication. Instead, devices drift in and out of use in a manner akin to shoes or clothing, based on changing needs and taste, but regularly churned by the desire for novelty and a sense of progress epitomised in “the upgrade.”
The East London Household is home to long-time cohabitants Anlo (male, 32) and Bryo (male, 28), who have recently been joined by Bryo’s girlfriend Amma (female, 29). All three could be characterized as middle-class and relatively cosmopolitan, with family roots from inside and outside Britain, or experience living abroad. Anlo works in financial services, Bryo works as a teacher, and Amma works as a dog groomer in an upmarket department store. With no family or mortgage commitments, the three visibly enjoy having leisure time and disposable income. The house is a rich nest of board games, books, DVDs, and digital devices.
The spatial distribution of digital devices was highly clustered, with three rooms each containing a side or corner that was essentially dedicated to digital devices. The largest cluster of devices is in the lounge, a second is in Bryo and Amma’s bedroom, and a third is in Anlo’s bedroom. The kitchen, bathroom, and hall are relatively free from communication technology. Mobile devices and peripherals do circulate the house freely, but tend to be stored alongside the main clusters.
The lounge cluster is the most significant, with a large television connected to a shared high-end desktop computer known as “The Monster,” as well as an XBox, a Wii, and a DVD player. The screen is also used to watch cable television.
The cluster in Bryo and Amma’s bedroom centres around a desk with Amma’s iMac desktop computer, a printer, and sometimes Bryo’s laptop.
The cluster in Anlo’s bedroom is centred around a desk with his laptop (though it circulates), and a large number of peripheral devices. The cluster is also home to an old desktop computer and other unused hardware.