UW Today

October 21, 2013

‘Pushback’: Resisting the life of constant connectivity

News and Information

Two friends check their smartphones.

Two friends check their smartphones. The authors of a new UW study say some are stepping back from constant use of technology.Garry Knight

Researchers at the University of Washington have studied and named a trend lots of people can identify with: the desire to resist constant connectivity and step back from the online world.

“We call this ‘pushback,’” said Ricardo Gomez, assistant professor in the UW Information School and co-author of a paper to be presented at the iConference in Berlin in early 2014. Lead author is Stacey Morrison, who graduated last summer with a master’s degree from the school.

“Pushback is an expression of those who have access and use of communication technologies, but who decide to resist, drop off, manage or reduce their use of these technologies,” Gomez said.

He said this small study emerged during his larger work about the exact opposite — marginalized populations wishing to engage more with technology. “I started seeing these behaviors and wanted to understand them better, so I took a little side trip. If my main work is with the underserved, what is life like for the overserved?”

For this study, the researchers looked closely at instances of pushback against technology. They reviewed 73 sources divided equally among three areas of online expression: personal blogs and websites, popular media sources and academic conferences and journals.

In these they identified two main themes: the motivations that drive users to stop or filter their use of technology, and behaviors, or the ways they make this change.

Gomez said they thought they’d find frustration with devices, costs or learning new technologies as key pushback motivations. Instead, the reasons were more emotionally based, with “dissatisfaction” — the thought that users’ needs are not really being met by technology — most often expressed, followed by other reasons such as  political, religious or moral concerns. Other motivations were the wish to regain control of time and energy, fear of addiction to the technology and — among the least-often reported — worries about loss of privacy.

“We were surprised by the lack of concern about privacy,” Gomez said. “But people tend to take it for granted and don’t think it’s a big issue. They choose to disclose a lot of things online and do not think it will come back to affect or hurt them.”

By far the most often-reported pushback behavior was adaptation, when users resolved to limit their online exposure by more closely managing their time or applications, using dummy accounts to reduce spam or unwanted communication, or engaging in digital fasting, the researchers found.

Pushback behaviors reported less often were social agreements, or collective decisions to limit technology use; technology-based solutions such as returning to “dumb” phones and — reported by a small minority — dropping offline entirely.

“Longing for connection to people is what makes it hard for users to push back on technology, what brings them back. But technology seems to overpromise and underdeliver in this respect,” the researchers summed up. “If technology both helps us to connect, and at the same time drives us apart, we need to learn to manage technology, and know when to push back.”

Still, the researchers noted that a small minority of people in their review appeared unconcerned with their use of technology even questioning the validity of resisting connectivity in the first place.

In other words, as Gomez said, “Even pushback may also have a pushback movement.”

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For more information, contact Gomez at 206-685-1372 or rgomez@uw.edu.

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