The Skype paradoxHomelessness and selective intimacy in the use of communications technology

Richard H. Harper, Rod Watson and Jill Palzkill Woelfer
Social Shaping Research, Cambridge | Telecom ParisTech, Paris | University of Washington, United States


Digital technologies are likely to be appropriated by the homeless just as they are by other segments of society. However, these appropriations will reflect the particularities of their circumstances. What are these appropriations? Are they beneficial or effective? Can Skype, as a case in point, assuage the social disconnection that must be, for many, the experience of being homeless? This paper analyses some evidence about these questions and, in particular, the ways communications media are selected, oriented to and accounted for by the homeless young. Using data from a small corpus of interviews, it examines the specific ways in which choice of communication (face-to-face, social media, or video, etc.), are described by these individuals as elected for tactical and strategic reasons having to do with managing their family relations. These relations are massively important both in terms of how communications media are deployed, and in terms of being one of the sources of the homeless state the young find themselves in. The paper examines some of the methodical ways these issues are articulated and the type of ‘causal facticity’ thereby constituted in interview talk. The paper also remarks on the paradoxical problem that technologies like Skype provide: at once allowing people in the general to communicate but in ways that the homeless young want to resist in the particular. The consequences of this for the shaping of communications technology in the future are remarked upon.

Table of contents

‘Homelessness’ is a polysemic term, both in everyday parlance and in professional usage. It can be either a category on its own behalf, ‘the homeless’, or a predicate and modifier of other categories, such as the ‘homeless young person’, and so forth. Its particular meaning is bound, also, to the cultural and historical moment in which it is used and the related categories thus implied. An early study of homelessness is Nels Anderson’s (1923) classic book, The Hobo, for example: here homelessness is tied to the auditory rumble of trains entering and leaving Chicago, the murmur of strangers in a boarding house, the ad hoc economics of casual farm work, and a credo that led to its own vernacular, self-identifying label for those in this world, the “hobo”. Today, in contrast, homelessness in common sense terms evokes and is tied to other matters – the bleakness of life on the urban street; to how incomes, if any are to be found, derive from agencies and not seasonal work, and a world connected not by railways and cars but by Facebook, Skype and the smartphone. Moreover, professional explanations offered for homelessness have also changed over time: when Anderson wrote, these were often cast in terms of social cohesion (or fragmentation) bound in part to economics, today such explanations are organized around the topic of social exclusion with all its moral overtones. This in turn is linked to the theoretical motifs of the current time; today these include whether the homeless are also ‘mobile’ (Jackson 2012, 725–41.) Techniques for examining the use of categories like homelessness need, then, to consider the conceptual worlds of which such a category are a part, worlds which are framed on the one hand by conceptual apparatus of theory and on the other by the material circumstances of experience and self-definition.

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