An Interview with AER16 Keynote Speaker Dr. Mary L Gray

Mary L. Gray, PhD is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She maintains an appointment as Associate Professor of the Media School, with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and Gender Studies at Indiana University. Dr. Gray’s research looks at how media access and everyday uses of technologies transform people’s lives. She gave a keynote speech at PRIM&R’s 2016 Advancing Ethical Research titled ” When Human Subjects, Science, and Consumer Rights Collide.”

We spoke with Dr. Gray about her background and field of study and how they relate to research ethics.

PRIM&R: How did you develop an interest in your field?

MG: Some of my earliest work looked at how young people use the internet and social media to navigate stigmatized identities; specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identities. I focused on people under 18 years old living in the rural United States–this was at the dawn of the internet, in the mid-1990s. I wanted to understand what, if any, difference the internet could make to people who were removed from every day sources of support and validation. What I found was that media technologies and social networks can make all the difference but, at the same time, the material conditions of living in impoverished areas can make even the most promising media useless.

PRIM&R: How would you explain your area of study to someone unfamiliar with it?

MG: The easiest way for me to explain it is the anthropological study of people’s every day uses of media and technology. Rather than assume that tech “does things to us,” I start from the premise that all social life is deeply mediated and culturally specific, whether it’s moments in front of the morning mirror, talking face-to-face with a friend, talking on the phone with a parent, watching the same TV show and texting with friends about it on Facebook or playing a multiplayer video game.

 PRIM&R: How does this intersect with research ethics?

MG: Anthropology completely depends on the willingness of often complete strangers sharing their life experiences with us. There’s a long history of ethical reflection and accountability in my field. More recently, my colleagues in computer science have turned their attention to fundamentally social questions. They are just beginning to work out how to look at social interactions online in ways that respect and recognize the deeply sensitive nature of observing people in settings where it’s not always easy for the researcher to be seen.

PRIM&R: What do you hope our audience took away from your talk at the 2016 Advancing Ethical Research Conference?

MG: I hope I sparked debate among AER16 conference participants in considering our role in drawing more respectful and just guidelines for researchers at intersections of computer science and data science. We are at a crossroads. Global use of digital media for everyday communication and cultural exchange has outpaced our ability to clearly comprehend its impact on our political, social, and cultural lives. Nascent fields of scientific inquiry are springing up to make sense of when and how digital media make a difference in our lives. Researchers need this audience’s help to set an “ethical North Star” in navigating a world that cuts across the private and public sectors, government and civic life. These media aren’t going away and we need a much more robust set of tools for studying them and our relationships to them.

PRIM&R thanks Dr. Gray for sharing these thoughts with our community and for her contribution to the conversation at AER16, and we’re happy to be welcoming her to our Board of Directors this month.

AER16 attendees can access the proceedings from this keynote here. The access code from sent to you announcing the proceedings’ availability will be required to launch the recording. Readers who did not attend AER16 can purchase the proceedings of this conference and others by completing the order form found here.