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Featured Member Profile: Benjamin Lyall

Today’s featured member profile comes from the fabulous Benjamin Lyall. Take it away Ben!

Member: Benjamin Lyall

What are you researching?

I am currently exploring the ins-and-outs of self-tracking with wearable technology – from the perspective of users. This means interviewing participants about how and why they use devices like Fitbits, Apple Watches and so forth.

Within this, I am interested in why people start, continue and potentially stop self-tracking, as well as exploring what it means to collect and reflect on data like step counts, heart-rates or calorie consumption.

Given these focuses, the data I collect is varied; consisting of audio interview transcripts, screenshots of visualisations from mobile apps, and also online disclosures. My analysis is currently underway and is (attempting) to establish something of a framework of ‘intimate devices’ – which draws on code/space, actor-network theory, new materialism, and a number of big data/surveillance perspectives.

I think I feel – like many others probably – that this could all change at a moment’s notice! But that is the current trajectory of my work.

 

What drew you to this topic?

I noticed when wearables became widely available to consumers (perhaps about 2014), many devices were notable for their bright wristband colours – so they were quite obvious. I then became interested in them as being very conspicuous, overly co-present and therefore mediating experiences of daily life. I generally think we take on new technology without knowing how it will impact us, and the trend toward wearables and internet-of-things devices seemed to be one of these that I was able to explore in-situ.

At the time too, the notion of “wearables” in media and marketing discourse was idealistically positioning these devices as the next evolution in technolgy (from computers to smartphones to smartwatches). As of now, I don’t think that has played out – but the current reality is probably more interesting anyway.

 

What have been the highlights of your RhD journey?

So far I’ve really enjoyed the binary experiences of being both deep within – as well as far removed – from my research.

The former being the in-the-moment of interviewing participants. My interview method is fairly loosely structured, and I really enjoy teasing out interesting stories and turning over ideas with my participants. I think this reflects why I became interested in sociology in the first place – recognising difference and exploring how and why people do different things.

The latter is the experience of listening to other students and academics, and learing about their work at conferences, symposia, and other events. The diversity of ideas and research trajectories I have had the privilege of learning about so far has been frankly staggering and thoroughly fascinating.

 

What do you wish you had known before you started?

Having just completed my honours year before starting a PhD, I think I had already had a taste of what was to come. What I would have liked to know in advance is that ‘iterating’ is a deeply complex skill.

My university experience before RhD was a proccess of ticking-off short term projects. My PhD so far has been a process of constant iteration and refinement, and this is something that has (and is) taking more discipline and patience than anything else I have ever done in my life. It requires tailoring ideas to different audiences and angles, depending on the current need. This makes it futile to compare yourself to yourself – you just have to keep pushing forward.

 

What advice would you give to others who are either just beginning, or contemplating starting postgraduate study?

Make documents, nothing will be wasted.

I consider myself ‘organised’, but not really a ‘planner’. As such (and given the above comment about iteration) I’ll make notes, templates or outlines for upcoming tasks well in advance. When I do return to said task, having even the most meagre skeleton of an idea already formed, is enough to comfort me that ‘I can do this’. It’s also worth noting that every word I’ve ever read or typed during my research, is searchable either on a local system or cloud storage service. So making loose notes can often be invaluable, because when I need to call back to one of those skeleton ideas, I can simply search them up from the ether.

What do you do when you aren’t working on your research?

Within university life, I’ve been lucky enough be able to teach younger students, work on other research projects, and form some great friendships with others researchers – and some of these spillover into life outside uni.

Beyond uni life, my partner and I are still feel ‘new’ to our current city/state, so we enjoy exploring, with or without our two dogs, and are lucky enough to be within walking distance of public transport, cafe strips and beaches – all of which help facilitate this exploration.

 

Thanks Ben! If you think you could answer our 6 quick questions, drop me an email at zoei.sutton@flinders.edu.au

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