vendredi 8 avril 2011

Habitele research project

Habitèle. Wearable digital identities

Goals of the project:

a new theory for digital identities when they become wearable

· Academic: demonstrate the validity of an anthropological framework (habitèle theory) for understanding the major role of the mobile phone as a new skin/envelop (after habit, habitat and habitacle), that allows shifts from one identity or affiliation to another. Conduct a international survey to check the validity of the model and to explain differences.

· Operational: reinvent the problem of/ solution to digital identities as elements of what we wear (bags and wallets) -including credit cards, keys, money, IDs, notebooks, social networks profiles- and find new ways for equipping these activities and offering new solutions to the privacy debate.

Context and justification :

the mobile phone aggregates all the functions, tools and identities that we were used to wearing in our bags and wallets

· People used to control their personal world through devices that they always want to keep close to their body (keys, credit card, money, IDs and so on). Now the mobile phone is aggregating all these traces of affiliations to various worlds and making the shift between these worlds very fluid. The mobile phone becomes the device for the habitèle, that was contained in our bags and wallets and it adds all the identities we create on the web and on social networks platforms. The device could easily be replaced by data and applications in the cloud provided that it keeps some close coupling with the body: the portability is a key feature

The new theoretical framework of habitele is derived from many years of observations and analysis (Latour, Gagnepain, Sloterdijk theories) but must now be validated by a large survey using digital methods in order to imagine a new understanding for the digital identities proliferation and the legal/ethical controversy.

· The Flickr group “what’s in your bag” has now more than 19000 members who post comments about each piece of contents in their bags. Bags are a precious equipment that people like to talk about, as well as about their behaviour on social networks.

Theoretical stakes

· The mobile phone does not have a theory of its own because it is not thought of as an envelop. Social sciences should have done this for the car, 100 years ago, which transformed the city, the climate, and mobility too. The mobile phone is not a question of what is said, who talks to whom, but of being connected and aware of it, creating the “possibility for a call”, and at the same time offering the opportunity to shift from one social world to another in just one second. Living permanently on an “alert” state of mind and “commuting” so easily change the conditions of socialization. “The medium is the message” when more than half of humanity is connected since 2007, using almost the same device. Mc Luhanian and ANT frameworks will be the main references.

· The habitèle theory includes a large part of legal discussion about property, trying to reuse medieval modes of property (dominium) that have been destroyed in favour of the unique “exclusive property” regime (supposedly)., which created all the problems we are now facing. As strange as it may appear, the user is not the “owner” of his personal data, they constitute his personal envelop, his new skin, his dominium that can be penetrated and used respecting some conditions, since these data are formatted by some institution or company (the state for the ID, the telcos for phone number and access, the social network platform for the profile, the national bank for the money, etc..). The political and ethical discussions on privacy might be reframed using the habitele analysis.

Survey methods

The survey will be made of:

· the analysis of tags on bags contents (Flickr database, 19000 photos + various sub groups),

· community management on a website dedicated to this topic and created for the purpose of this survey (analysing comments and co-producing the research)

· International state of the art and figures in 8 countries: about the uses of mobile phones, credit cards, IDs and social networks profiles,

· In-depth interviews of 100 persons in 7 countries (USA, Canada, Brazil, Tunisia, Nigeria, India, Korea, England) and 500 interviews in France. Including a method based on going through one’s wallets and bags

· Observations of 5 specific experiments and uses of mobile phone (or other portable devices) in each country (e.g. micro-payments)

Technologies required

Development of an API or equivalent on Flickr

Development of a social network web site on the topic and datamining tools to monitor the conversation (available at the medialab)

Quantitative and textual analysis tools for the survey (on the shelf, integration needed)


Dominique Boullier, professor of sociology at Sciences Po, scientific coordinator of the médialab.
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