Anna Lena Menne, Makēda Gershenson & Alissa Steer
Have you ever genuinely stopped to consider how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) affects your life quality? While ICT, such as smartphones and the internet, are omnipresent in our daily routines, many of us fail to truly comprehend their impact on our social reality. As such, ICT remains an enigma or a so-called “black box” to many. However, the reality is that ICTs are not impartial entities. They are products of powerful individuals who bring their own values and biases to their creation and therefore perpetuate social inequality and reinforce historical structures, such as colonial dependencies. As a result, socially privileged individuals tend to reap more benefits from digitization, while marginalized groups are often left at a disadvantage. To make matters worse, personalized tech devices and content are tailored to individual preferences, but the power dynamics within the networked systems that govern other devices remain hidden. Altogether, these issues pose a universal challenge – how can we all freely and safely navigate the digital world with self-determination?
Digital Positionality and Epistemic Justice in the Digital Age
The digital age is rife with inequalities that hinder our ability to achieve true emancipation. Epistemic inequality, which manifests as knowledge gaps between individuals and between ICT creators and regular netizens, only exacerbates this issue. Our research tutorial is an innovative solution to address these knowledge gaps head-on. X-Tutorials are a type of research tutorial facilitated by the Berlin University Alliance, led by students for students, that provide an opportunity to experiment, develop, analyze, research, or evaluate self-organized projects with other like-minded individuals. Our group, linked to the department of Gender and Media Studies for the South Asian Region (GAMS) at the Institute for Asian and African Studies (IAAW) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, is committed to promoting epistemic justice, a goal that we aim to achieve by introducing the concept of digital positionality.
Digital Positionality refers to the unique online environments of individual users and how they impact life opportunities. When engaging with ICT, our social identity and position shape the challenges and opportunities we face as we navigate our lives in a digital age. The ultimate objective of our research tutorial is to affect change at both the individual and systemic levels by designing a tool that empowers individuals to reflect on their digital positionality. This way, we hope to transform our digital experiences and those of others, fostering a more just and equitable digital world.
From Accessibility to Empowerment: Action, Collaboration, and Student Research
When it came to designing our tool, we knew that we could not simply impose our own ideas on others. Instead, we needed to gain a deeper understanding of people’s diverse digital experiences to create design principles that would be truly effective. To do this, we asked ourselves a crucial question: how can we make the concept of digital positionality accessible and meaningful to netizens, who often encounter complex technological structures through highly individualized interfaces and are sometimes misled by myths surrounding technology’s rationality? This was the key challenge we tackled in our project, inspired by a Participatory Action Learning and Action Research (PALAR) approach emphasizing collaboration and critical thinking.
Our journey began in the winter semester of 2022 at the IAAW Institute and will continue into the current summer semester of 2023. In an action learning group comprised of diverse student netizens, we sought to address the research problem that directly affects us in order to improve the digital experiences of ourselves and others. Rather than presuming to know what is best, we approached the project with open minds and in adherence to the design justice network principles, we prioritized listening to and understanding individual experiences. PALAR differs from traditional research approaches, which emphasize validity and reliability. Instead, we measure our research quality by the transformative effect of the project and consider all interactions towards achieving the project goal as data. These interactions include group meetings, field discussions, participatory strategies, and reflective journals kept by group members, all of which aim to ensure ethical conduct and personal transformation. By using this approach, we aspire to design a tool that truly reflects the needs and experiences of diverse people.
In October 2022, we initiated a cyclical action research process. Our work started with exploring the theoretical foundations of digital positionality and then examining and reflecting on our own experiences with ICT and digital positionality. To better understand the experiences of individuals from diverse and often underrepresented backgrounds, we developed research methods that were inclusive and responsive to their needs. Although our project was limited in scope due to the constraints of our university course, we evaluate its success based on the principles of PALAR. In other words, we measure the extent to which our work has empowered us as student researchers, the individuals with whom we have interacted throughout the research process, and ultimately the success of the tool we plan to create in the summer semester.
Fieldwork: Exploring Diverse Digital Positionalities
We embarked on an extensive fieldwork phase in January 2023. Our first method of inquiry was the Chatterbox, an electronic can phone developed by the Design Research Lab in Berlin, which enabled us to digitally gather and process ideas, questions, and comments on the digital sphere. With the help of a computer voice named Hans, our correspondent of the digital sphere, we interviewed approximately 60 individuals from various social milieus around Berlin, including a university and a workplace for people with disabilities, to assess their needs in reflecting on their digital positionality. We then conducted a focus group discussion with seven individuals from diverse positions in the social hierarchy, ranging in age from 24 to 72, with different identities, physical and mental abilities, and social classes, using a combination of spectrum and open-ended questions to explore issues of digital inequality and identify similarities and differences in their digital positionalities. Lastly, we organized two creative workshops for digital natives aged 11 to 14 at a community school in Berlin, teaching them about ICT and providing them with a space to reflect on their own experiences in the digital world.
Berliners‘ Perceptions of the Digital World: Beyond Established Discourses
Our conversations with people in Berlin revealed that the dominant European media discourse about the digital world significantly influenced their perspectives. Their concerns reflected issues like losing face-to-face interactions, excessive reliance on technology, addiction, and cyberbullying. They also expressed apprehensions about surveillance, data privacy, and the excessive power of large corporations in the digital realm. At the same time, the positive aspects of ICT were framed in terms of efficiency and rationality. Thus, to facilitate a more nuanced understanding of people’s relationship with digital technology beyond established discourses, our project requires an interactive educational component that emphasizes both ICT’s positive and negative aspects. Additionally, we envision the tool as open-source and easily accessible, emphasizing personal reflection and self-awareness and providing users with independent guidance to navigate the reflective process.
Avoiding Self-Reflection: The Cycle of Technology Use and Shame
People are heavily reliant on ICT, and they consider it a vital aspect of their daily lives. However, they tend to view technology’s benefits in terms of simplicity, convenience, or even laziness, rather than reflecting on how it enhances their quality of life. Although the European discourse agenda has raised awareness about the negative effects of ICT, most people continue to use it without engaging in genuine critical reflection. This, as we observed, leads to feelings of guilt and a perceived loss of self-efficacy among participants. During our focus group discussion, individuals acknowledged their high dependence on ICT with a negative connotation but were hesitant to delve into why. Instead, many devised rationalizations for their behavior, thereby bypassing self-reflection. This cycle of avoidance perpetuates the passive use and development of technology without addressing its adverse effects.
Some common ways that Berlin participants avoided reflecting on their ICT use and alleviated guilt and shame: acknowledging their dependence, but feeling too entrenched in it to break free, downplaying the negative aspects of technology, finding comfort in hearing that others share similar experiences, and even experiencing withdrawal symptoms when separated from their devices. There are numerous issues with this behavior of ours, but to highlight the most straightforward one: humans are the creators of technology, which means we have the ability to shape it to benefit us rather than just accepting the negative consequences as unavoidable. Taking the cycle displayed above one step further, we could compare it to psychological patterns of addiction. To address these issues, our tool must provide a reflective journey that is fun, creative, and affectively, emotionally, and behaviorally engaging. It should also help individuals identify self-exploitative dynamics and offer ways to maintain and heal throughout this reflective transformation while encouraging personalized self-assessment through shared socio-digital experiences.
The Transformative Potential of Shared Digital Experiences
The importance of shared experiences in our highly personalized digital world was a crucial factor in unlocking the transformative potential of our research project. Our primary goal was to gauge the effectiveness of our research by measuring the transformation of both our research group and the individuals we engaged with. We found ourselves and our participants expressing their gratitude, feeling empowered, and sharing their insights with their social networks as a result of engaging with our research, which was one of our greatest successes so far. Our focus group discussion further emphasized the importance of acknowledging the digital experiences of others, as demonstrated by a participant who found voice control on their phone annoying but recognized its significance for a blind person:
“For them (points to a blind person), it’s natural that voice control is better than for me. I’m currently struggling to… how can I explain it… understand these different perspectives. What is very annoying for me is important for others.” Therefore, our tool should promote engagement with various perspectives. It should also encourage sustainable digital self-determination by fostering creativity and providing resources for individual and collective societal transformation in the digital age. Most importantly, it should remain open to new ideas and continuously evolve through user input.
Fostering Sustainable Digital Self-Determination: Ten Principles for a Reflexivity Tool
Going forward, we will focus on these ten principles in the final X-Tutorial semester at Humboldt University to create a reflexivity tool that will support our pursuit of epistemic justice and contribute to important conversations about ethics and social justice in the digital age. If you have any inquiries, want to join us or wish to contact us for another reason, please feel free to reach out.
About the authors:
Anna Lena Menne is a Master’s student at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where she tutors and co-researches digital positionality. Her critical research explores global transformation processes, focusing on digitization and the historical context of information societies’ epistemology/ontology and contemporary configurations of domination, order, and inequality. She completed her Bachelors’ in Media and Communications from Freie Universität Berlin and spent a partner semester at the University of Pretoria and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Contact
Makēda Gershenson is a co-researcher of digital positionality. She is a Master’s candidate in the Futures Research program at Freie Universität. She holds Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and German Studies as well as a Master’s degree in Education from Stanford University, in addition to an Executive MBA from Quantic School of Technology. Her work focuses on emotional intelligence, equity and community-based interventions, bringing contemplative practices into educational settings. She trains school leaders, educators and organizations in social-emotional learning and mindfulness and supports individuals as a digital behavioral coach. Contact
Alissa Steer is a co-researcher of digital positionality. She is doing her master’s degree in Media and Political Communication at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on critical theory, platforms, and hegemony. She is a student assistant in the research group Politics of Digitalization at the Berlin Social Science Center. Here, she combines her experience from her Bachelor’s degree in Media Research from Technische Universität Dresden and a semester at Universitat Abat Olibat Barcelona with her research interest in the impact of patriarchy, imperialism and capitalism in the digital age. Contact