Tablet computers and technological practices within and beyond the laboratory

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Burns, Ryan Patrick (2015)
  • Subject: QA76

In this thesis I examine emergent technological practices relating to tablet computers in scientific research laboratories. I ask four main questions: To what extent can tablets be considered scientific instruments? How do tablets help to construct technoscientific imaginaries? What role do tablets play in the construction of technoscientific subjectivities? Can tablets, positioned as popular everyday computing devices, be considered in terms of expertise in the context of laboratory science?\ud To answer these questions, research is presented that examines the situated practices of scientists using tablet computers. I use textual analysis to examine the marketing discourses relating to laboratory-specific tablet apps and how their material structure defines scientific community and communication. Ethnographic research into the way that tablets are being introduced as part of a new teaching laboratory in a large UK university is presented, focusing on how institutional power affects the definition of the tablet. A second ethnographic research case study addresses how two chemists define their own scientific subjectivity by constructing the tablet as a futuristic technology. In a third large ethnographic research case, I consider the way that tablets can be used in practices of inclusion and exclusion from sites of scientific knowledge.\ud I draw on literature from media and cultural studies and science and technology studies, arguing that the two fields intersect in ways that can be productive for research in both. This serves as a contribution to knowledge, demonstrating how research into identity, politics and technologies can benefit from a focus on materiality drawn from the two disciplines.\ud I contribute to knowledge in both fields by developing two key concepts, ‘affordance ambiguity’ and ‘tablet imaginary’. These concepts can be applied in the analysis of uses of technology to better understand, firstly, how technologies are made meaningful for users and, secondly, how this individual meaning-making affects broader cultural trends and understandings of technologies.
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