The Spur Questionnaire: Isabel Pedersen

Isabel Pedersen
Dr. Isabel Pedersen

Dr. Isabel Pedersen, Canada Research Chair in Digital Life, Media and Culture, is the director of the Decimal Lab at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Currently she holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant for her research into reality-shifting media.  Dr. Pedersen will be part of our panel on The Quantified Self  happening April 11 at 5:30pm at the Al Green Theatre. Get to know her a bit better though her answers to the Spur Questionnaire.

Tell us about your participation in the 2015 Spur Festival.
I am a humanities scholar who has researched the cultural consequences of wearable technology for a long time. I’ve watched many of these devices evolve from very early inventor’s prototypes into consumer products that anyone can buy. What has always fascinated me is that the conversations around wearables always seem to avoid existential questions in favour of market predictions or technical analysis. So I was enthusiastic when Spur asked me to be on a panel called The Quantified Self which is exploring the “self-knowledge through self-tracking” movement in order to ask more probing questions. Fuelled by so many recent wearable personal tracking devices, the idea of a systematically recorded “quantified self” has become plausible.

Many believe we have launched an era of democratized health. Quantified self is also big business. We are the product. Big data is the catalyst. But at the personal level, we also need to ask if classifying, rating, and ranking our numbers can help us know ourselves better? Make ourselves better? Or engender the loss of a facet important to us?

What do you hope Spur Festival attendees will take away from your session?
I hope that attendees feel more empowered to question technological innovation as it sits on the cusp of changing our values as a society. I think we are bombarded with the latest and greatest tech, and it’s exciting. But we should consider and question the consequences embedded in the evolving minutia of everyday life and how they will change the future. All of the basic assumptions of what a computer “is” or “must do” should be different than in the past. Wearable tech, right now, is the most personal computer platform ever anticipated. Wearable tech of the future promises to make quantified life measurement much more invasive with wearable robotics, bionic contact lenses, or implantables. However, at the root of it, I also think the idea of “knowing the self” is a concept that has a rich heritage in many disciplines including life-writing, autobiographical film, self-portraiture, or genealogy all of which might be helpful when it comes to dealing with the motives behind new tech poised to better the self.

Which program at the 2015 Spur Festival are you most looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to Alone, Together on Film: InRealLife because it deals with the idea of young people being addicted to digital life, a perpetual connection to a heavily commercialized existence online.

What is the one item you never leave home without?
My sunglasses.

Which book is currently on your nightstand?
The Peripheral by William Gibson and The Back Of The Turtle by Thomas King

In the last year, what is the longest you have gone ‘unplugged’? No internet, no cell phone, etc.
I realize I’m completely inculcated by what Mark Andrejevic called the “digital enclosure” nearly a decade ago in his book iSpy.  The personal affect is quite tangible. The most grueling experience for me is to be device deprived and cutoff for seven-hour flights to Europe. Being alone on a plane is one of the most isolating versions of alone, so these are the instances I remember most. Being physically pinned to a chair without real or virtual friends only works if you have a great book or a great sleeping pill.

Who was the last person you texted?
I like texting people who have a great sense of satire. Witty responses make my day and context is everything. I can always expect a zinger from my best friend, who I just texted.

The animated show The Jetsons was set in 2062. Is there anything from their futuristic world that wish were a current reality?
The Jetsons have an augmented reality clothing projection screen so that you don’t have to try on clothes in stores, just stand behind them. I’d like that. Also, I wish we had the human pneumatic tubes, so that we could fly from office to office.

How do you prefer to communicate with colleagues: by phone, email, text or in person? How do you prefer to communicate with friends?
Every unique person and situation demands a unique method of communication. I text friends and colleagues who are kindred spirits, for me texting is like whispering in someone’s ear. Phoning is for cutting through the noise and making a stronger social connection. Email is for formal introductions and documenting important things. Snapchat is for silly chats with close friends. I am looking forward to the day that we can easily send haptic messages to friends, similar to a pat on the back. Form over content, I guess.

What do you love about the city in which you live?
During Toronto summers, I love taking the ferry to Ward’s Island because I spent time there at camp as a child. It feels like you have completely escaped to a rural place amid the urban hubbub. In winter, it’s best to be looking out at Ward’s Island over a glass of wine from the warmth of a lakeside restaurant.


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