My PhD Thesis

I have finished and passed my PhD in the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths and finally gotten round to posting a copy of it here for anyone interested. I found it really difficult taking the practice based route – and got a lot from reading other practice based PhD’s – so here’s mine.

In simple terms, my PhD research was me working through how I feel about networked technology. I started using the internet in the mid 90’s as an undergraduate and, like lots of others, was pretty seduced by the utopian potential of it. Having worked with and around networked technology since, the PhD seemed like a good chance to consider where I am now, and my current relationship to ‘the internet’ now that it is a everyday part of life. As someone who gets easily overwhelmed, then paralysed, by things like social media and my five thousand unread emails, I wondered if being on the internet had to feel like this? Were there alternatives?

Being someone who shuts down and wants to escape in the face of too much information – I decided to lean into the urge to retreat – and made the whole PhD about how networked retreat might operate. I decided to use my practice to build some networks that in some way retreated from the internet I was used to. Practice wise, I built a local network on a mountainside in the Highlands, and in a train station in Liverpool. I looked into the history of retreat. This led me on some quite significant digressions, like a fascination with medieval Christian monasteries, which I learned were a reaction to the power of the Roman Catholic Church, then proceeded to draw lots of dicey parallels between them and Facebook, going as far as to compare Mark Zuckerberg with the Pope in a paper at a conference.

Simon Stylites who lived on top of a pillar for 37 years.

I managed to get back on track though, and ultimately, the whole exercise became about the ethics of disconnection, asking about who gets to do it and what is the person in retreat signifying through their escape? I discovered that retreat, really, is quite a masculine move, a disavowal of friends, family, and the requirement for support, to create an image of autonomy which, itself, carries power. In the end the whole exercise scaled back up and I found myself working with Google Street View and looking at how we can make our own networked spaces that sit somewhere between the uniformity of mega platforms and the isolation of the autonomous disconnected node. It was a journey.