DISTRACT Project description

DISTRACT brings together social science and data science methods to explore the political economy of distraction in the post-digital age. Combining qualitative and quantitative data, our interdisciplinary team investigates the mental, social and material techniques by which attention is captured, retained, and distracted in the world’s most digitized country, Denmark.

DISTRACT is comprised of four subprojects, within which a range of research activities are organized and carried out.

Subproject 1 - Distraction Politics 

The aim of this subproject is to explore the dynamics of political attention among Danish politicians, political parties and other key agents and contexts of public debate. By homing in on this political dimension on the political economy of attention, the subproject team on the one hand will seek trace evolving attitudes to  “surveillance capitalism”, “digital distraction” and similar current issues among politicians and other political stakeholders, and how these same actors are themselves entangled in and rely upon such data economic platforms and tools. Our focus is thus both on how politicians forge ideological positions around the question of big data and the Internet – and sub-issues such as population stress levels, screen time for children, the use of digital devices in schools, and the digitization of the public sector within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic – and on how they themselves actively seek to capture, retain and distract attention among their followers and the wider the public on and through the use of social media. By combining qualitative data and methods (e.g. fieldwork observations) and quantitative ditto (e.g. text mined from social media), the ambition is to contribute to state of the art scholarship among sociologists and other social scientists on “issue attention” and other questions concerned with how politicians and the public interact and influence each other through digital platforms. For example, and with the meta-aim of developing a new methodological tool-box for the social scientific study of political processes and events, a recurrent and high-profile political event will be studied: Folkemødet (“The People’s Meeting”), an annual event on the Danish island of Bornholm where many thousand politicians, journalists, activists, lobbyists and academics congregate for four days. In collaboration with the Distract political attention WP group, the bulk of the project will comprise the collection, storing, cleaning, processing and analysis as diverse forms of “social big data” from two consecutive seasons (2021 and 2022) of this political event. These might include: meta-data from Wi-Fi, app and telecommunications providers, Twitter and other social media postings before, during and after the evens, data from the local utility providers (electricity, water, sewers, etc.), as well as various kinds of qualitative data-forms such as ethnographic field notes, observation logs, focus groups and interviews. Drawing on lessons from the Copenhagen Network Study (Sekara et all 2014;), the resulting multi-channel and -resolution “deep data” (Blok & Pedersen 2014) will form the backbone for methodological investigations. This may include experimenting with data science tools to novel a platform for the computational study of ethnographic fieldnotes and other unstructured qualitative data (Abramson et al 2017: 279), including supervised topic modelling trained on hand-coded text (Lee & Martin 2015; c.f. Blei & McAuliffe 2007) or other semi-automatized approaches (Abramson et al 2015; Nelson 2017, Albris 2018), and more exploratory models using unsupervised machine learning or neural networks to detect patterns that humans may overlook due to biases and other limits (Gerlach et al 2018; Kozlowski et al 2019).

Subproject 2 - Coding Distraction

This subproject seeks to contribute to a detailed empirical understanding of the emerging software practices, infrastructures, and valuation regimes of the digital “attention economy”, from the point of view of its instantiation in and as code and coding practices. Towards this aim, the subproject team deploys a combination of (n)ethnographic and computational approaches, taking the Danish app development market as its shared object of research and point of departure. Specifically, ethnographic work inside Danish app-related companies will afford context-sensitive understandings of how commercial software projects are organized and unfold, how programmers and consultants design and optimize software products to attract and retain the attention of users, and how potential technical, ethical, legal, professional or ideology concerns enter into and refract the coding processes. Complementing this, large-scale data from the software repository and code sharing platform GitHub allows the subproject team to understand network-quantitative patterns of cooperation and shared attention (and distraction) amongst the community of coders active on this platform, including in ways that cut across and potentially blur the distinction between commercial and open-source coding practices. This allows for quali-quantitative opportunities at the intersection of ethnographic and computational approaches for exploring patterns of association and dissociation in the Danish app development market as an “attention economy”, manifested in relations among diverse company types and valuation practices. Besides being a source of data, moreover, this implies also exploring GitHub and related online platforms (like Stack Overflow and LinkedIn) as themselves sites for coders to attract attention to themselves, their companies, and their projects.

Subproject 3 - Defying Distraction

This subproject of DISTRACT aims to investigate and map out the emerging digital backlash in Denmark. This backlash takes the form practices such as digital disconnection and digital detoxes, the moral panics and ethical discussions about what a good life means in the digital age, as well as the attentional technologies and practices that are part of such limitations of digital device and platform usage. More concretely, the subproject aims to engage in three packages of research activities in order to investigate these issues. First, the project will scrape social media platforms and news archives in order to map the evolving nature of digital detox discourses, and to chart the temporal and linguistic traces of these discourses. The aim here is to do a series of mapping exercises that will provide a contemporary history of digital detox and disconnection. Second, the project will study how people report how often they pay attention to their digital devices and screens as well as the kinds of limitations they set for themselves and their families. This will be done through both surveys, logbooks, sensor tracking techniques (smart wearables), and ethnographic observations and interviews. The aim here is to investigate the different types of technologies and practices that people use to resist or modify their own allocation of attention towards and against digital devices, while also investigating the socio-demographic aspects of digital detox and disconnection. Third, the project will study the emerging economy of digital detox and disconnection, which take the form of silent retreats, mindfulness courses, and phone apps. This will be done by doing participant observation on retreat and courses, as well as scraping data from platforms and apps. The aim here is to map to what extent this emerging economy is successfully taking advantage of a general societal change of perception vis-a-vis social media platforms and digital devices. Overall, the methodological ambition of the subproject is thus to approach digital detox and disconnection from a variety of social science and data science angles, in order to chart these tendencies as matters of concern for actors in society.

Subproject 4 - Regulating Distraction

The overarching objective of Subproject 4 is to explore the mental, social and material techniques by which attention is captured, retained, and distracted in Danish work and school contexts. More specifically, through a combination of quantitative (in the form of e.g. controlled experiments) and qualitative (e.g. ethnographic fieldwork) data and methods, we seek to contribute to an empirically informed understanding of how the attention of some actors (employees, students) is regulated by other actors (e.g. employers, teachers) to reach certain goals. For workplaces, the goal is for employees to be productive in terms of individualoutput while at the same time to be attentive to colleagues, that is, to be socially productive. Similarly, in schools, the goal is for individual students to concentrate and learn to acquire specific knowledge and skills, while also being attentive towards their peers; that is, to be socially  competent. In both contexts, the regulation of attention and the mitigation of distraction are thus central techniques by which an optimal balance is sought between the need for people to focus on individual tasks and the need to exercise care and “to be social” towards others. This  regulation of attention/distraction can be externally imposed by either the workplace or the school, and it can be internally imposed when an individual seek to control their own attention by actively reducing distractions. The subproject is structured around two research packages.

First, by cooperating with a large Danish company we investigate how distractions can be externally regulated to achieve the objectives of the company. Even if a company ultimately wishes to increase productivity, there are many ways to do so. For example a company must carefully balance individual and social productivity. Social productivity relies on cooperation and networks and can lead to higher innovation and wellbeing at the job. Due to the current surge in working from home as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, social productivity has been challenged. For increasing social productivity some individual distractions like water cooler chats, are actually desirable as they increase cooperation and networking. With this project we aim to identify the objectives of the company and assess the effect of regulating distractions. To investigate this we use both qualitative methods like interviews and participant observations, alongside questionnaires and a randomized controlled experiments (RCT) designed for investigating the effects of regulations on distractions.

Second, we investigate how adolescents in schools experience distractions and how they wish to regulate themselves to gain control over their time spent on digital devices. In other words, their allocation of attention in relation to the digital. We assess how well different regulating practices work for increasing the experience of self-control, learning and wellbeing. The main method is quantitative, but qualitative methods will be used to increase the understanding of why a given tool works or does not work.