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Interview with Sara Pink
"There's no separation between the digital world and the material world"
July 2013 / By Teresa Bau Puig
In June, Professor Sarah Pink participated in the Digital Interventions Symposium, a joint initiative of RMIT University in Melbourne, where she lectures, and the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, UOC). Hosted by the IN3, the event was organized to share experiences involving research in the field of digital media and social and cultural transformations. In this interview, Pink explains humans' relationship with digital media in everyday life.

What's the basis of your research project?

My research is based on the idea that digital media are a key element in our environment, and that there's no separation between the digital world and the material world. The two constantly overlap in our lives. You might be ironing while watching television or listening to the radio, for example, or you might use your mobile to get the weather forecast. We've therefore realized that it doesn't make sense to study the use of digital media separately, as they're completely embedded in our everyday life. For instance, we take our mobiles with us wherever we go, even to bed!

Your research focuses on people's day-to-day life, particularly family life. You use the highly original 'video tour' research method.

Yes, we film people going about their daily routine in their home, especially before they go to bed and when they get up in the morning, two key moments in terms of energy consumption and interaction with digital media. After filming a family, we show them the recording and, if necessary, we edit any parts they don't feel comfortable with. The video tour is a means of understanding aspects of everyday life which are less visible at first.

What does your video methodology have to offer research?

It could be a new way of generating knowledge, for researchers and other types of users alike. A video tour isn't just a recording of a home and a family, but also of a researcher's movements in a multisensory, social environment.

Your studies are reshaping the concept of a home.

Yes, our homes are a far cry from the idealized image of a house and a family which TV adverts present. Laundry, for example, is highly present in all homes, whereas it doesn't feature in the social conception of a home. The research we're doing has shown that laundry is omnipresent in homes and is a major factor in household energy consumption, particularly in the UK, where clothes are dried on radiators or in machines rather than outdoors.

 
"People aren't very rational in terms of energy use"
 

Along with professionals from other disciplines, you're working on the Low Effort Energy Demand Reduction or LEEDR project, which is geared to understanding domestic routines with a view to exploring ways of reducing household energy consumption. What have you observed so far?

We're observing around 20 households in the UK, mainly families with children. We've seen that people aren't very rational in terms of energy use. For example, many people turn off all the downstairs lights and appliances when they go to bed, but then fall asleep in their bedroom with the television or radio switched on. Mobiles are omnipresent. We take them to bed with us and use their radio function as an alarm to wake us up in the morning; either that or we leave them to charge up while we sleep.

At night, we leave some electrical appliances in stand-by mode. Such routines are firmly established in people's lives and make it difficult to come up with ways of saving energy.

In one of your articles*, you say that we're saturated with digital media.

Yes, they're a fundamental part of our lives. They're present in our homes, at work, in our social life, etc. TV, radio and telephones are mobile, and they're always with us. What we've discovered is that we don't necessarily use digital media individually, but rather tend to combine them with other activities. For instance, we watch television while using a mobile or a tablet, we do the ironing while watching TV or listening to the radio, etc.

So, we don't use them on their own?

The exception is at work, where we might devote all our attention to using a computer. At home, it's very rare. The curious thing is that if you ask someone what they're doing, they identify their other activity as the main one. For example, a person who's ironing and watching TV will say that they're ironing. They don't realize that they're carrying out the other activity. Digital media are part of our unconscious routine.

Your view is that we're not only saturated with media content but also with the "presence" of digital media.

Exactly. The presence of digital media in homes is constant. They're still there, even if we're not using them. Having the radio or TV on creates a familiar drone that's part of our lives. We leave lots of domestic appliances in stand-by mode, our mobile phones charging up, etc.

Another aspect of your research revolves around the Slow City movement, in the UK and Spain alike.

It's a very interesting movement that has been growing since it emerged in Italy in 1999. It has spread further afield and now encompasses 176 towns and cities in 27 different countries. It generates a feeling of distinctiveness among inhabitants and prompts them to take an active role in improving the place they live in. The aim is to "protect" towns and cities from the effect of multinationals and large supermarkets. The movement promotes alternative forms of development based on people's quality of life. In Catalonia, I've carried out research in the towns of Pals and Begur.

 

Profile

  • Professor of Social Sciences at RMIT University.
  • She carries out both academically and business-oriented interdisciplinary research.
  • She is an authority on visual and sensory research methods.
  • Her areas of interest include everyday consumption practices in domestic settings, the analysis of local authority sustainability agendas, the anthropology of media and the practices of the UK's construction industry.
  • In the business arena, she has undertaken applied research for Unilever, Constructionskills UK and the Nuffield Foundation.
  • *'Saturated and situated: expanding the meaning of media in the routines of everyday life' S. Pink and K. Leder Mackley, forthcoming in Media, Culture & Society.
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