I’d Like to Know What’s in Your Wallet

This week, we are required to consider information questions by closely reading a particular artifact, device, designed object, or text. In a sense, the current SSHRC research question I am undertaking addresses the study of an artifact – the photo album. It is a designed object/information tool that, when utilized according to its intended purpose, serves as a text which documents compiled histories. Through studying how immigrant families construct their photo album, much can be learned about the information practices that surround the artifact – the ways in which identities are constructed on a deeply personal level, or forged to mask existing fractured relationships, ultimately detailing visual constructs of what family life means to the author of the album.

In the same spirit, if I had to choose a different artifact, it would be the wallet. Much can be examined from an information perspective, especially in terms of sense-making by analyzing the organization practices inside a wallet, what people choose to keep in there and what they choose to omit. It would also be quite intriguing to discover the socio-cultural practices behind the organization of a wallet and how the ways in which people choose to keep organized through order or chaotic mess serve as a reflection of their identity. But oh, how highly controversial and invasive a study this would be! The family photos, purchase receipts, business cards, loyalty cards, banking cards…heck, personal information in a variety of formats exposed only to be scrutinized and judged by a researcher. And I couldn’t be expected to analyze my own wallet – no, it would have to be your wallet. How comfortable would you feel about that? I bet most of you are twisting your faces in agony, lifting an eyebrow and mouthing out “what?!” Rightfully so. In order to study the wallet, a researcher must understand that these artifacts are intrinsically tied to their human owners. As such, a study of these artifacts is invasive, bordering the realm of unethicality. This also complicates notions of authority and ownership, since it is inevitable for the researcher will become invested in the study of a wallet and feel a sense of identification with their context. In turn, once the wallets’ secrets are unveiled to the researcher, this could have a crippling effect on its owners’ morale.

After all, who in their right mind would willingly allow a stranger to rummage through and critically examine the contents of their wallet? Would such a research project even be feasible?

Olivia Wisniewski

Note: If you’re interested in the highly controversial study of texts, check out French conceptual artist Sophie Calle’s ‘The Address Book’ (originally published in 1983, later translated to English): http://sigliopress.com/book/the-address-book/

Basically, the entire affair commenced when Calle found a lost address book on a street in Paris. Before returning the address book to its rightful owner incognito, she copies down its contents and embarks on a mission to contact and interview the people within the address book in order to discover who the owner is without every meeting him. This is a great example of how the small-scale exploratory research of an artifact can answer larger questions about the information practices – how information, once out of the owner’s grasp, can lead to major surveillance and privacy issues which can potentially compromise the identity an individual.

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