‘Pushback’ against constant connectivity also reflected in images, study follow-up finds

People expressing the wish to resist constant online connectivity — dubbed “pushback” by University of Washington Information School researchers — is manifested as powerfully in images as in text, further study has found.

Information School associate professor Ricardo Gomez was co-author on research into textual pushback that was published in the online journal FirstMonday in 2014. Stacey Morrison, a recent graduate of the iSchool, was lead author.

A late-autumn 2015 follow-up paper on which Gomez is lead author, also in FirstMonday, is the first to review visual aspects of the pushback theme.

“The novel thing here is that we looked at images — something nobody had done on this topic,” Gomez said. “And we studied the use of humor, metaphor and blurring of boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘virtual,’ which don’t come up much in textural studies of media resistance.

“While two years ago only a few people were looking at resistance to technology, today it is an issue of growing concern,” Gomez said. “Resisting the lure of technology is becoming mainstream.”

The researchers conducted content analyses of 233 images online, culled from an original total of 400 found posted on such popular sites as Google, Bing, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and reddit.

“We found strong visual expressions of resistance to technology related to overload, health, relationships and reserved (technology-free) spaces,” the researchers write. “Each one of these is an important dimension where the role of technology is critiqued, with particularly strong imagery related to addictions, as depicted by images that compare Facebook or Twitter to cocaine, heroin or cigarettes.”

They found that these image-based critiques of what has been called the “evertime” of constant connectivity are represented by depictions of all phases of life, from birth to death, with a particular focus on friendship and weddings.

One demographic group in particular presents an opportunity for further study: “We may have missed visual expressions of resistance to technology that were created by youth, due to the platforms we sampled,” the researchers write. “Future research can explore the similarities and differences between adult and youth expressions of resistance to information and communication technologies. Such additional studies would augment the findings we have presented.”

The images studied are laced with irony in that they are used online to comment on the excesses of and resist the connected online life. The researchers are aware of this twist.

“Rather than advocating an impossible return to the past,” they write, “our goal is to invite informed and self-aware use of information technologies to improve our lives.”

The research complements work by iSchool professor David Levy, who also advocates for a more self-aware use of technology in his well-reviewed new book, “Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives.”

Gomez’s co-authors are Kirsten Foot, professor of communication and adjunct professor in the iSchool; iSchool doctoral students Meg Young and Rose Paquet-Kinsley; and Morrison, who now works for the UW School of Medicine.