An interview with Dr. Olya Kudina, postdoctoral researcher at the value change project
What is your role within the project?
I am a post-doc on the Value Change team. I look into the mechanisms that cause values to change. I do this by building on my PhD research on John Dewey, examining how values interact with their surrounding environment.
Could you explain what you mean by ‘environment’ in regards to values?
For Dewey, values originate in human practices positioned within specific socio-material settings. That’s what he calls an environment. Values are never ‘out there’ but always exist in relation to what is around them. And what is around them is highly social and material. Although he doesn’t explicitly mention technology’s role in the formation of – and changes to – values, he never excludes it and gives some key examples involving technology.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on two publications about voice assistant technologies such as Amazon’s Alexa and value change. They are based on interviews I conducted last summer. The first paper is about how we change our behaviour to fit these technologies into our home-lives. When we’re at home, we take for granted that it is a place where we don’t have to show-off or adjust our behaviour, but instead can be ourselves. So I am looking into how users fit these technologies, which have been prone to privacy breaches, into their home-lives. The second paper is more theoretically focused and examines how the malleability of value frameworks becomes visible when people try to make sense of these technologies.
Could you provide an example of a technology that incurred value change that you find particularly interesting?
Sticking with voice assistants, I found that the way we talk about ourselves and talk with others is gradually changing the more we interact with these technologies. These technologies can’t process the full spectrum of human speech and mainly respond to command-based language. But there’s so much more to our speech than commands – we use jokes, we use sarcasm, we use follow up questions – things these technologies can’t “understand.” Because of this, people are adjusting their speech patterns around the voice assistants. The most obvious example here is how children, who don’t have the same reference frameworks as adults, adopt speech patterns their parents use to interact with Alexa as their default ones. When parents inadvertently talk to Alexa in this command-based way, their kids mirror this and assume this is a good way to talk. So parents have to put more effort into interacting with their kids, to teach them about different ways to talk.
Could you name a book or article that influenced your understanding of value change?
In line with what I have already mentioned, I would say John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct, where he introduces the environmental perspective of values. Looking back on my Science and Technology Studies education, I think one of the most influential papers I read was How the Refrigerator Got its Hum by Ruth Schwartz Cowan. The article sets out to answer the question: why do we have electrical rather than gas-powered fridges? And shows that gas fridges were actually superior – technically speaking – but the manufacturers of electrical fridges successfully convinced consumers it was the better option because they had the economic and political means to do so.
If you had the opportunity to spend a year researching something unrelated to your given academic field, what would it be?
I would study biology, more specifically, epigenetics. I find it fascinating that our genes can change in response to environmental factors. Currently, we know of a few mechanisms that make this possible, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. I think it has some parallels with the environmental perspective on values I use in my research. I look at phenomena, including values, in a holistic way and trace how they are connected to other similar phenomena or practices and never emerge in isolation. Epigenetics studies all of this and more, in relation to genes. I could learn a lot from that.