Thoughts on ‘technological capital’

I spent yesterday at the very stimulating TLANG project seminar entitled ‘Language, social media and migration: the role of mobile communication technologies in migrants’ everyday lives’, organised by Caroline Tagg.

It was my favourite kind of academic gathering – one track, a small group of people in the same room, and enough time for questions/discussion, talks by a mixture of established academics and early career researchers, and best of all, as I wasn’t giving a presentation myself I could sit back, enjoy and reflect on the ideas colleagues were sharing.

While each of the a presenters had something interesting to say about the migrants’ communication practices and mobile technologies, I think one of the most memorable phrases I heard was in Stefan Vollmer‘s talk on Syrian newcomers to the UK and (among other things) how they approach getting a new driving licence, which he also writes about in this short paper.

Expanding on Bourdieu’s notions of cultural and symbolic capital, he used the term ‘technological capital’ in his talk to describe his participant’s facility with smartphone technology, and his ability to use it to circumvent some of the linguistic barriers he faced and attempt to make up for the “loss of capital” resulting from the invalidity of his Syrian driving licence in the UK.

I was very taken by this idea, but in the subsequent discussion I suggested that if we are to use technological capital in a way that is analogous with Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic capital, it should not simply refer to ability or proficiency in the use of technology. Instead, it should refer to the perception of others that one has a particular standing in society that relates to technology. This would not be based not on proficiency with that technology, but instead on other personal characteristics that might make someone assume one is good at technology. For instance, purely by being young, one would have technological capital because young people are assumed to be good with technology. Perhaps possessing a certain type of smart phone, or typing in a particular way (for instance, without key-click noises!), would also imbue people with technological capital This would then be comparable with Bourdieu’s linguistic capital – the notion that based on someone’s choice of language or variety, their pronunciation or use of particular registers, they are taken more seriously and seen to be authoritative, friendly, intelligent, or whatever other quality has come to be associated with that language variety.

As I said in the discussion, this is still “back of envelope” thinking, and the ideas need to be fleshed out. I’d be very interested to find out what others who have worked with Bourdieu, or on the intersection of technologies and identities, have to say.

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