Digital Methods for Sensory Media Research:
Toolmaking as a Critical Technical Practice

by Jason Chao, Daniela van Geenen, Carolin Gerlitz, and Fernando van der Vlist (alphabetical)

In: Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 0(0). doi: 10.1177/13548565241226791.

Abstract

‘Digital methods’ turn to medium-specific and online avenues for social and cultural research. While these approaches foster empirical media studies, it has become increasingly challenging to ‘follow the medium’ and ‘repurpose’ its methods. The prominence of sensory media such as ‘smart’ networked devices (e.g. mobile phones) in mundane practices and their infrastructural dependencies confront media scholars with highly contingent objects of study. Yet, studying such sensor-based devices is crucial, for they enable continuous and unnoticed monitoring of everyday (inter)activity. The article suggests that developing digital methods for sensory media can be understood as specific ‘critical technical practice’ (CTP) by engaging with two toolmaking stories. It draws on and emphasises the fundamental similarity between CTP and digital methods which both aim at conjoining technical engagement and understanding with methodological reflection. The toolmaking stories explicate the making of and the limitations to developing digital methods for increasingly obfuscated mobile sensory media, exploring the possibilities of repurposing their functionality and data. They include building tools for app code analysis focused on apps’ capacity to track sensor data, as well as for ‘sensing’ and analysing network traffic of mobile devices in use. The featured toolmaking then unravels distinctive research affordances, that is, action possibilities for ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’ modes of analysis grappling with the technicity of mobile sensory media and their data. We argue that toolmaking as CTP for sensory media studies implies engaging with these media as entangled infrastructures, examining not just their social, but also their technical ‘multi-situatedness’. This involves investigating the ‘liveliness’ of their data, or how it is generated, processed and made sense of. In conclusion, we discuss implications for ‘doing digital methods’ in sensory media research. Toolmaking itself becomes an inevitable form of media research and critique, inviting and challenging researchers to deploy the media’s situatedness for their investigations.

Read more: https://doi.org/10.1177/13548565241226791 (open access).

AppInspect (for scanning and inspecting Android application packages (APKs)) and AppTraffic (for capturing, inspecting, and playing back the network traffic of mobile apps), the tools that support the findings of this study, are openly available in the App Studies Initiative’s (ASI) Tools directory at http://appstudies.org/tools.

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