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Digital Social Networking: A Collective Out-of-Body Experience?

Date & Time:
16:30:00 - 18:00:00,
Thursday 29 May, 2014


This talk will address themes formulated by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin writing at the height of new technological changes noticed how the mechanical reproduction of the senses (the camera, the moving-image and the phonograph) significantly changed life and human relationships to the world. In this he lamented that the mechanical reproduction of art and life significantly changed it, and created what he called a ‘loss of aura’. This talk will explore how the making of relationships, maintaining them, and interacting with others have significantly shifted online. What are the consequences for the way people get a sense of themselves, their identity and autonomy? Are people psychological merging with others in these new social networking spheres? Is it creating a false consciousness of connectivity? In leaving the sensuous, present body behind in online social interactions what is changed? The remarkable aspect of online social networking is it makes visible, previously hidden relations. People share information about themselves in these networks that reveal something about who they are and what image they would like to project into the digital spheres around them. In this talk I will explore the concept of presence – what it means to be present with another and if we need to rethink the role of presence, co-presence, embodiment and self in light of the significant shifts taking place. What kinds of persons are we becoming? I will draw on the analogy of the medieval messenger to reflect on what happens to the message when it is not delivered in person, does it reduce the authority of the message that is exchanged? Or by sending messages through machines (the modern messenger) the only way we can really show previously hidden parts of self?

This event is part of Oxford Digital Ethnography Group, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography (SAME) and the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

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  • Name: Dr Kathleen Richardson
  • Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, UCL
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  • Bio: Kathleen Richardson is an anthropologist of robots, autism and online social networking. She conducted her doctoral studies at Cambridge exploring the making of humanoid robots at MIT. Kathleen recently completed a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCL exploring the therapeutic uses of robots for children with autism spectrum conditions. Her next project will be an examination of associations between autism and machines. A theme of future work will also explore Asperger’s and digital culture. In this Kathleen is interested in how human beings make connections and attachments to others and what happens when they can’t. Her book The Anthropology of Robots and Artificial Intelligence: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines is due to be published by Routledge in January 2015. She is currently a Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology, UCL.