What’s Up with WhatsApp?

27 Feb

The purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook has produced much comment. A lot has been said about the incredible amount of money paid; even more about might and power. It’s not what WhatssApp does (or might become) that has been noted, but how much money Facebook has to spend on it. Facebook has become, we are warned, a Beast on the Block, a mighty leviathan of Corporate Wealth and its purchase of this Start-up proof. Many ask whether the behaviour of such a corporation will negatively affect the world we live in: after all the enormous and beneficial impact of the Internet is precisely because it allows diversity and creativity; it creates new business possibilities. Is it boon from one of these possibilities that will now fund sterilisation of the Internet?

These concerns – legitimate and proper though they are – elide another question. WhatsApp is a communications technology, so one can understand why, say, Google wanted to buy it. It would extend the portfolio of a search engine enterprise. But surely Facebook has cornered the market for messaging, for being in touch in the age of social networking?

What is WhatsApp? It’s basically an instant messaging (IM) application: one logs on and posts text or an image, even a sound file, and this can be accessed by anyone else who logs on. It’s instant, too, so just as soon as one creates content so it can be seen. Only buddies or registered users can participate so it’s all safe and private. In some respects, however, WhatsApp is unlike traditional IM services. Content doesn’t disappear when you log out; it lingers there like Graffiti on a virtual wall. One’s mates can see it whenever they log on – it’s waiting for them to (as it were) to drop by. It runs on any smart phone, too, so though it looks a bit like Blackberry Messenger, it is not associated with any device or mobile network. But doesn’t Facebook offer all this? Can’t you download on to you smart phone an IM client and tell your buddies ‘what’s up’ through Facebook?

Yes and No – in technical terms you can do pretty much all this. The real distinction – and the thing that made WhatsApp so appealing to Facebook- is how WhatsApp is used. And this is in part consequent on the way Facebook use has itself has evolved over the years and in part on changes in the way friendship is managed through digital means. 

For many people, Facebook was one of the first social networking sites they experienced. This was where they first brought their friends together to show and share; this was where they familiarised themselves with the basic grammar of status updates, postings and Likes. Facebook was also the place where they came to discover that not only can you bring all your friends together, but you can exclude people. As I noted in my book, Texture,  teenagers soon discovered that one of the key values of Facebook was that they could exclude Mum and Dad. If bedroom doors could always be opened by nosey parents, but digital access rights could always be denied on Facebook.

But just as teenagers learnt this, so too did parents. Thus, today, as various anthropologists have discovered, parents insist on access to the family member’s accounts. And as these rights are gained, so teenagers have realised that they cannot abandon Facebook altogether. Something has to be there or else their parents would be suspicious.

The kinds of content one finds today on Facebook reflects this ebbing and flow. What is there can best be described as anodyne – posting and updates that articulate a public profile, tweaked with some intimacies, updates about a new job, say, or a major family event but little more. And it is not just parents and teenagers who negotiate thus to produce this content. Most content is essentially of this kind: an augmented digital Yellow Pages with a personal spin. It’s a personalised directory of people in the digital age.

So what of friendship? Doesn’t Facebook still support and enable it? Of course it does. But the form it does so is not sufficient to let friendship throb, and here comes the value of WhatsApp. When asked what they use WhatsApp for, many people will reply, with some embarrassment, that they can’t actually say. ‘Well, it’s for my friends. You know with your friends you don’t really need to say anything but we do sort of say something. I mean, it’s mostly tosh’. They might go further and say that, when using WhatsApp, they don’t have to formulate proper sentences either – they can simply say out loud (as it were) what they are thinking – since a friend will understand; they might well be thinking the same thing too. And they might add that they use WhatsApp pretty much all the time – their smart phones always being at hand, their friends always desirous of contact. By way of further explanation, they might explain why Facebook doesn’t do all they need. ‘I don’t need to put a status update. My friends know what I am up to – mostly they are doing it with me.’

This seems to be the measure of modern friendship. It is not that friendship has a different manner – friends have always spoken tosh with each other, they have always filled in each other’s phrases and doubtless too they have persistently pestered each other down the ages with words when they are not wanted. But with WhatsApp (and similar applications) they do this wherever they are: at work, at home, in bed, on the train; when they are bored, when they have something to laugh at and something to whinge over; in short, when they want to find out ‘what’s up?’

And this is why Facebook is so keen, why it thinks it justified to spend the money it has. It is here that they can get to the heart of being human in this day and age.

But it is far from clear that Facebook will be welcomed by users. It is not at all certain that the space between all the tosh can be filled up with adverts and click-thru’s; nor is it clear how much value can be placed on pointless chit-chat: how much will people be prepared to pay to say nothing at all?

Of course friendship is infinitely valuable. But friendship is like water: it will find a way through obstacles put in its path: the question for Facebook is whether it will be such an obstacle or a conduit. The evidence is that it was once a conduit and then became an obstacle: only time will tell if the same fate will befall WhatsApp.

Dialogues with computers?

9 Jul

At the most recent conference on Human Computer Interaction in Paris (CHI-2013), one of the more interesting panels asked why spoken word dialogues between humans and computers have not had the success predicted. Voice recognition is now good, and the points of interaction with machines make voice-based dialogues not only easy but often preferable for safety reasons. Using voice commands when driving a car, for example, is certainly less hazardous than keyboard data entry. Voice-based systems are quite common, too; most people can hardly say they reject them because of unfamiliarity. Finally, voice-based dialogues seem ‘natural’; ‘intuitive’ one might say.

One would think that, taken together, these reasons would make voice-based interactions, dialogues with computing, the norm. And yet it isn’t.

Many of the participants in the panel (and those who added comments from the floor) suggested that the reason(s) for this had to do with a profound resistance amongst users to speaking with computers. Something about doing so left people feeling as if trust was at issue. Users either don’t trust in the systems they are dialoguing with, fearing they are being misled or fobbed off with interactions designed to trap them. Or they don’t trust in their own participation in such interactions: they fear they are being made fools of in ways they cannot understand.

These discussions led me to reflect on my own current reading. Dialogues with computing is certainly a hot topic – though the concern here is not with the adequacy of the technology that enables this – speech recognition engines, dialogue protocols and so forth. It has to do with the purposes or consequences of such dialogues.

For example, Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed (2010), when people rely on computers to do some job, it is not like Miss Daisy trusting in her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination (an allusion to a film and book of the same name). It’s not what computers are told that is the issue. It’s what computers tell us, the humans, as they get on with whatever task is at hand. And this in turn implies things about who and what we are because of these dialogues with computing.

According to Rushkoff, there is no knowing what the purpose of an interaction between person and machine might be: it is certainly not as simple as a question of command and response. In his metaphor about driving, what comes into doubt are rarely questions about whether the computer has correctly heard and identified a destination. The dialogues that we have with computers lead us to doubt in why some destination is chosen. This in turn leads to doubts about whether such choices should be in the hands of the human or the computer. The computer seems to ‘know’ more, why should it not decide?

John Naughton, in his From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg (2012), raises similarly large issues again illustrated with destinations. For him we need to ask whether we can trust computing (and the internet in particular) to lead us to dystopia or to heaven–though the contrast he presents is not entirely without irony: heaven is represented in the duplicitous appeal of Huxley’s Brave New World or dystopia in the self-evidently bleak form of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1984).

Meanwhile, Pariser complains in his Filter Bubble (2011) that we cannot trust in the dialogue with have with search engines: today, in the age of ‘the cloud’ and massive aggregation systems, search engine providers can hide things away from us in ways that we cannot guess. When we ask search engines something we cannot know what the answer will be for search engine technology is now deciding what we need or want; even what is good for us to know. That this is so is at once sinister and capitalistic, Pariser argues: sinister since it is disempowering of the human, capitalistic since it places the market above the public good. Search engines take you to what companies want to sell, not to what you need to know.

These books, subtle though they are, seem to miss something: they all assume that the issue is one about trusting either the computer or ourselves: that dialogues are between two parties, and the issue is that not both can be trusted – at least not all the time. And, importantly, it is not always the computer that breaks trust: sometimes a computer does know more than the human interlocutor, and so should be trusted to make the right decisions in certain circumstances. What these authors seem to miss is the question of what speaking with computers says about the value that people – that society more generally gives – to speech. John Durham Peters argues in his book, Speaking into the Air (1999), that one of the essential values that came out of the Old Testament was the Hebrew idea that speech distinguishes people from beasts. Or, rather, it is the capacity to speak to God that distinguishes humanity from the wild animal.

At the CHI conference I mention above, one of the panellists argued something similar: that people treat speaking as something hallowed, precious, a unique bond between people. It is therefore not a skill that should be debased into being a method of dealing with computers. As it happens this individual, Professor Matt Jones, of Swansea University, is a trained priest and so this view might reflect his desire to honour the spoken word as does the Old Testament. But as I listened to the various points of view put forward, including his own, I began to think that perhaps there is something to do with the status given to speech that leads people to resist defiling it with the mere task of communicating with computers. Perhaps there is something about our capacity to talk with other people (and our Gods if we so choose) that we want to preserve as well as honour.

This lead me to think of Wittgenstein and his remarks that if lions could speak we would not find anything to talk about with them. In his view, our conversations are about our human experience; what it means and feels to be human.

And then, as I reflected on the tribulations that using voice-based dialogues with computing induce, how foolish they can make one seem as they force us to keep repeating words and phrases, I began to realise that this foolishness might be making us feel less human. It degrades our hopes for what we want to be: gifted with words and talk, talk that bonds us with each other (and for some, like Matt Jones, to their God).

And then, as I recalled also the tasks one often seeks to undertake in such dialogues, I thought there was even more credit to the idea that talk with people is special. After all, a typical use of voice dialogues is to be found when someone calls a company to complain about a service or product. They find their attempts to speak with someone are spurned: they end up in engaged in endless and seemingly pointless dialogues with a computer!

This too, like the shame we feel when we are instructed on how to speak by computers, attests to our desire to speak to people.

Speech is not then a mere modality of interacting with computers; it’s a modality that has especial status for people: it’s the modality for being human. No wonder then that voice-based dialogues are not as popular as predicted. We really don’t want dialogues with computers.

 

Inverting the Philosopher’s Method: A Paper in Honour of Christian Heath

13 Jun

Reflections on a Colleague

Christian Heath has been one of  the most productive researchers in the sociological field known as ethnomethodology. I wrote this essay in honour of his birthday this July which is being treated as a kind Festschrift. Since it is reflective I thought I might post it here.

Inventing a topic

Christian’s research has been primarily focused on one thematic: the co-proximate, temporally bounded collaborative determination of meaning or, to put it more simply, ‘how people come to agree what they are about in whatever situation they are in’. There are lots of phrases used to define this topic: the ‘mutual constitution of meaning’ is another to add this list. Christian typically labels the doings in question as ‘work’ though it is not understood as work by the individuals who do it: for them it is simply just what they do, how they get things done, an altogether practical affair.

One can examine this constitution of meaning in different ways, needless to say, and one’s focus will be confined whatever one’s choice. One focus is on the empirical instant – the micro-management of interaction and the production of meaning in the ‘here and now’. One can look at the larger temporal canvas of time – not just looking at seconds or minutes of interaction and the meaning produced therein but at hours, even months and what is produced as meaningful in that time scale. A contrast here can be made between, for example, Charles Goodwin, whose studies of medical practice focus on the micro-organisation of professional gaze (Goodwin: 1994) and D.L. Wieder, who examines how ‘tales’ about loyalty and trust in halfway houses in LA impose a moral order through time – over years. The convict code is as old as the halfway houses, Wieder implies (Wieder,1974). The bulk of Christian’s work – and of course that of his intimate colleagues, Paul Luff, Jon Hindmarsh, and others – has been of the former kind. Its merits have been in its remarkable exploration of the diversity of the work constitutive of the production of social organisation in ‘moment by moment’ interaction.

Christian was trained, as was I, in the robust and philosophically oriented environment of Manchester University’s Sociology Department. There the link between, on the one hand, a philosophical concern with epistemology, the nature of language, ‘other minds’ and more generally the key ‘problems’ of modern, post-Kantian philosophy and, on the other, the conceptual and empirical tools of sociology, were being played out.

Considerable passion was given to grappling with a critique, by Wittgenstein, of a notion that had been fundamental in philosophy since the time of Kant: namely that language and hence meaning exists in some kind of (Kantian) abstraction. Wittgenstein urged a ‘turn to the social’  and this was explained to us as being a kind of philosophical method that would correct the excessive idealism or abstraction of Kant. To put things very simply (and indeed to caricature the richness of debates at that time) we were taught that philosophers had always been taught to have a sense of words, but Wittgenstein suggested that they needed to get that sense refined by looking at the social practices in which the words are to be found.

In Manchester’s Sociology Department, however, this was inverted into the idea that one ought not to presume one knows anything about words until one looks at practices in the first place. It was only through looking at social practices that one uncovers meaning. The philosopher’s presumption that they are trained to know something about words without reference to the real was mocked as a kind of arrogance. The expectation in the Manchester common rooms was that the empirical endeavours instantiated by Wes Sharrock, John Lee and Rod Watson and, following in their footsteps, Christian, would lead towards a more grounded sense of ‘what things mean’, and thus a respecification of philosophy. In being more empirical it would be more like a kind of sociology. At the same time and by the same token a new kind of sociology, more philosophical, more Winchean (as in Peter Winch’s The Very Idea of a Social Science book of 1959) would appear. This would entail studies of concepts in action: it was to be a Wittgensteinian ethnomethodology.

A topic ignored

In this view, instead of philosophers coming up with problems of meaning or epistemology through their training in words and then solving these problems by looking at social practices, the Manchester technique held that ‘real’ problems would be found by looking at social practices in the first place; in the study of words and language in everyday life. The expectation was that the practical properties of, for example, epistemology, could be understood by looking at real cases of ‘doubts about facts’ in the ‘real world’. These would be found in the utterances of ordinary people in ordinary situations – though ordinary here meant both in everyday life and in professional (work) settings. As this was undertaken, it was expected that it would become unclear what was to be sociology and what philosophy; the prospect appeared to be a marriage.

We were excited, passionate as I say, though in hindsight one can see that the results of the research turned out to be rather disappointing; there was certainly no marriage. The impact on sociology was not as we thought; no new conceptual sociology has really emerged (for a review by two of those involved from the outset, see Hughes & Sharrock, 2007). But it turned out to be disappointing to philosophers too. It turned that much of the ‘work’ put in to social action, into making meaning, into the ‘co-proximate, temporally bounded collaborative determination of meaning’ are related to concerns that aren’t very philosophical. On the contrary, they are very prosaic as Christian might have put it. One could put it more strongly: they are often boring: boring to philosophers that is, if not sociologists.

Take Christian’s (and of course Paul’s) studies of control rooms: what do they report? They show that the ‘work’ entailed in the setting entails members instructing each other to ‘Look at this’, and ‘not to worry about that’: it has to do with attention. Meaning production doesn’t seem to have any Kantian overtones, no absolutes, no fixed categorisations or anything contentious: in particular no fundamental doubts about whether one person can trust another’s mind. ‘Are they really sentient?’ hardly seems like a problem controllers in the London Underground apply when they ask their colleagues to work. Certainly this is what I take from that remarkable corpus of investigations.

For another example, this time not one related to a domain Christian became re-knowned for but worth mentioning nevertheless, studies in the Manchester tradition of everyday conversation showed that meaning management sometimes – oftentimes – has to do with the enforced insistence that people listen to each other and demonstrate that in each turn of talk. ‘As you say’, ‘Yeah, I understand’, and most ubiquitously, the repeated phrase of acknowledgment that a prior utterance has been heard, ‘Uhuh’, were the commonplace stuff of the research seminars at that time just as they are commonplace in every conversation wherever it is held.

One can hardly be surprised that philosophers stayed away from either these studies of ordinary talk or Christian’s studies of work talk. For, philosophers then (and now as I shall come to remark) were seeking solutions to things that weren’t to be found in the everyday life—the things that I am calling the “Manchester approach” focused on. The concerns of philosophers were with, at that time, for example, what one might call the problem of interpersonal scepticism. To put this into a context familiar to Christian, this might mean a concern with the idea that people don’t trust in each other’s commonality of experience and that they (might) live in distinct universes. In this view, a concern for philosophers was how people came to ‘solve’ this differentiation – assuming of course it existed. They (i.e. people) needed to ‘bring together’ or ‘merge’ their views into one, it was presumed. The philosophers wanted to ask they did this? How did people solve the problem of “Other Minds”?

A topic for the 21st Century?
This was a philosophical topic. What Christian and others were showing however was that when people work together they did not have that sort of problem; all they had was the problem of shared attention – as I say, ‘Looking at this’ was the work that they had to attend to. There was a misfit between what the data showed and what philosophers wanted.

It is perhaps no wonder then that philosophers have not learnt from the insights of the Manchester creed of Wittgensteinian ethnomethodological inquiry – they don’t find what they want. So it is no surprise to find that today, either, some thirty years after Christian graduated from Manchester, there is an almost total lack of referencing to this work in the philosophical corpus. Jane Heal, until recently the head of the department in which Wittgenstein worked (Cambridge), not only fails to mention any of the vast published record of Manchester ethnomethodology in her own extensive work (for a review of arguments related to some of the topics here see Heal 1978) but even admits informally to have ‘never heard of it’.

The so-called ‘constructionists’ in the current philosophy of mind,  people like Bratman (1992, 1993), are similarly ignorant of this work. They refer instead to studies of a very different kind: in particular to psychological and laboratory studies of infants such as those by Tollefsen (2005) (see also Gräfenhain, et al, 2009; Tomasello, et al., 2005). These studies arbitrarily take segments of talk from the subjects ‘caught’ in their research apparatus (in the experiments for example) to affirm a conviction: that meaning production has to do with solving scepticism, with the problem of Other Minds. Infants in Tollefson’s laboratory tests don’t ‘really know that each other has a mind’, it is claimed.

Researchers like Tollefson and Bratman make such claims whilst ignoring the actual order of talk in the real world or even in the peculiar settings of the lab –in the sequential and embodied properties of the interactions between individuals. It seems to me that they thus miss just the kinds of things that Christian’s work has for so many years demonstrated are important and which show that the ‘work at hand’ is not one to do with solving the problem of Other Minds: it has to do with the much more prosaic task of agreeing the joint focus of attention, mutual acknowledgement, or the worked-at-listening to quality or essence of conversing with each other. Studies by Tollesfson and others attest not to the merits of philosophical claims they seek to address but to the remarkable naivety of these same researchers. These individuals seek to address concerns despite the evidence, their own evidence, that shows that those concerns are spurious – mere chimera. Christian shows what can be found in that evidence, but philosophers like Bratman don’t want to use Christian’s tools and instead turn to ‘scientistic’ psychology – in Tollefson,  Tomasello,  Gräfenhain.

I could list more such studies. The empirical inadequacy of them tends to be obscured in the grand narratives of philosophy one finds on the bookshelves of University towns: these  mainly disregard both empirical detail and empirical method. The narratives Andy Clark offers come to mind in books such as his Supersizing the Mind (2008).

Current philosophy of action

I have already suggested that one of the reasons why philosophers have not been receptive to the kind of work Christian exemplified is because it doesn’t answer what they are interested in. So why don’t they change their interests? We thought we could change them when we embarked on our studies of work all those years ago; we thought it would change sociology too but that is another matter.

There are I think two main kinds of reason for this. One has to do with the obsession most philosophers have with a certain set of problems. They had them when Christian was at Manchester; they have them now as he retires. Wittgenstein also called this obsession a kind of bewitching. He suggested  – and I am still convinced he is right – that this is driven by the grammar of language and its deceptive implications (for an excellent introduction  to this particular aspect of Wittgenstein’s view see Hanfling’s (2000)  book with the subtitle, The Bent and Genius of Our Tongue).

These obsessions are also driven by a certain construction, manufactured by philosophers themselves (Kant, Descartes, Frege, Russell, the early Wittgenstein, others), that builds on this grammar and its bewitchments and which both create and preserve the centrality of certain problems or topics for philosophy. These define a kind of field for philosophical inquiries and seem almost inviolate, and certainly seem resistant to change or the assault of evidence.

This is the claim that Rorty makes in his magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). His canonical example of this combination of ‘bewitching’ and ‘constructionism’ is in the concept of qualia: the idea that there is an internal screen or picture in the human brain that the body’s sensory data produce. It is these qualia that the individual as it were ‘sees’ and ‘interacts’ with. The crucial point about qualia is not whether the concept is empirically testable; Rorty notes that its value resides in its capacity to ensure that philosophers can still inquire into the same old problem they have looked at since Descartes: the problem of Other Minds.  For though sensory data might produce qualia, but how does an individual know it is that same data as another sees? Answering this conundrum is (apparently) a philosophical problem and requires philosophical techniques.

There is as I say a second reason. This is I think more unsettling, though it is related to what philosophers think is a philosophical problem and the techniques they think of as their own. If the first reason has to do with how ideas incarnate in the grammar of words can be built upon with structures about the nature of ideas that can lead one to peculiar places (to the idea of qualia, for example), then this second reason has to do with prejudice and disciplinary neurosis.

What I am thinking of here is the profound fear that philosophers seem to have that their trade might dissolve into a subsection of sociology – into another (rival) trade that makes meaning its business just as philosophy. This trade is not a science, such as psychology or, say, economics – neither of which care much for meaning. The problem for philosophy is how it can accommodate itself – fight with and survive as an independent entity – when another discipline is so like its self  -  which is in the ideas business where the analysis of  meaning is the trade at hand.

Let me illustrate the problem that this poses for philosophy in the way Rorty does: If meaning is to be found in social action, then techniques for studying social action could constitute philosophical techniques. But, and here is the rub, if those techniques have been developed by some other trade in the first place, sociology say (or anthropology, which one can treat as effectively like sociology in this discussion) then they might not lead to philosophically suitable data. Worse, use of those techniques might start to blur philosophical data into sociological data – what then of philosophy? Of course one might propose the reverse: that philosophical techniques could be used in sociology (think of Peter Winch) and that therefore sociology might submerge into a subcomponent of philosophy. But Rorty argues that that is unlikely. Philosophy doesn’t really have any techniques, only topics: Wittgenstein’s urging to look at social practices was an attempt to introduce such a technique and we can see what has happened to that: it is now forgotten (see Rorty’s 1992 edition of his The Linguistic Turn).

And here lies another problem for philosophers. Just as they might be vulnerable over method they might be vulnerable over this matter, over topic. This is particularly so if philosophers start defining their problems in the way that we imagined would be ideal when we sat around and argued in Manchester: through examination of the everyday, everyday talk, everyday work.

We found out early on that if one did this a real disaster happens, for philosophers anyway. Many of ‘their’ problems turn out often to be not problems at all. Other minds are not a problem when people are working together, for example. This is certainly what I think one ought to take from Christian’s work, as I mention above. Real questions have to do with the social production of focus on some particular thing; in agreeing the details that need to be treated skeptically, not in epistemological or ontological ones to do with, say, another’s mind. Of course this does not mean that scepticism vanishes: it is just that its place alters. As Stanley Cavell notes, it is a hugely powerful device in theatre and art (Cavell, 1994). The trouble is that, if this is the case, then what one might call the glory of philosophical inquiry is lost. By this I mean that the big topics, the preferred topics, the elementis profundis that philosophers since the time of Kant have claimed as they their moral right to study and answer. These vanish or diminish.

Conclusion

One of the things that comes to my mind, then, as I look back at Christian’s work is noting just this: that philosophers fear they will lose out if they turn to his sort of work despite its relevance. This shows a lack of courage, for me. It also shows a lack of scholarship. If only they had read the research that is undertaken in the field that Christian exemplifies then they would see how much richness is there, how much food for philosophical thought that lies there awaiting their visit. If only they read Christian’s papers and books they could see there is so much to uncover and research, so much to reflect upon and examine. To be sure some philosophical problems would come to be seen as chimera, like the ones to do with Other Minds, but others would remain as vital as ever and, besides, new ones would appear.

The passion of Manchester in the Seventies and Eighties might now be abating as the cadre of researchers produced at that time start wrapping up their careers – as Christian is now. But the contributions they made, the paths that they began to explore, don’t need to be abandoned. Those of us who are still hoping to keep at the academic millstone can add to their contributions, can further explore those paths, and carry our own bags down those avenues even as Christian packs his own up and takes them off to wherever he goes next (Hereford perhaps?). We can rekindle the passion Manchester fostered all those years ago, even if Christian has decided enough is enough. As he would say, ‘There is work to be done, let’s go and have a look at it’.

References

Bratman, M. (1992) Shared Cooperative Activity, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 2 (April 1992).

(1993) Shared Intention, Ethics, 104(1), pp.97-113.

Cavell, S. (1994) A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises, Harvard University Press.

Clark, A. (2008) Supersizing the Mind, Oxford University Press.

Goodwin, C. (1994) Professional Vision, American Anthropologist, Volume 96, Issue 3, pages 606–633, September.

Gräfenhain, M. et al., 2009. Young children’s understanding of joint commitments, Developmental Psychology, 45(5), pp.1430-1443.

Heal, J., (1978) Common Knowledge, The Philosophical Quarterly, 28(111), pp.116-131.

Hanfling, O. (2000) Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of Our Tongue, Routledge, London.

Hughes, J. & Sharrock, W.  (2007) Theory and Methods in Sociology, Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Rorty, R (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton.

(1992) (Ed) The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Tollefsen, D. (2005) Let’s Pretend! Children and Joint Action, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 35(1), pp.75-97.

Tomasello, M. et al. (2005) Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(5), pp.675-691.

Wieder, D.L. (1974) Language and Social Reality, Mouton: The Hague.

Winch, P. (1959) The Very Idea of a Social Science, Routledge, London.

Is the internet making our social lives more dynamic?

18 May

Introduction

Along with two former colleagues of mine, Lynne Hamill and Nigel Gilbert (both of the University of Surrey), I have been working on some research into friendship and the internet. The interest  has been in sociology of friendship and the deployment of new computational tools  for investigating that topic. This research is suggesting some surprising things, so much so that I thought I might share some of that here: what is presented below is a shortened version of a paper we hope to have accepted in the British Journal of Sociology.

A sociology of Friendship

Though one might imagine friendship is a concern for psychology perhaps more than sociology, friendship has in fact always been a central theme. Webs of connection made around friendship were said by Simmel (1922/1955), for example, to be both the consequence of institutional and professional bonds and the source of those bonds. In his view, work affiliation could lead to intimacy, and intimacy could be the motivation to join professional and organisational groupings.  Given this, the term friendship is at once a label that distinguishes those who are friends from those who are not and a label for a connection that leads to action. More recently, reknown British sociologists Pahl and Pevalin (2005) use longitudinal data to affirm that this is a better way of thinking about friendship; they explain that friendship is both a categorization of a relation in time and something that evolves through time. While Simmel was interested in the move from friendship to institutional relationship, and in how webs of sociality lead to webs of economy (and thus ultimately with the formal properties of social relations), Pahl and Pevalin focus on emotional connections, not economic ones. Moreover they are interested in both the making and the breaking of relationships: how individuals start as acquaintances, and then gradually, with the passing of time, become friends; and how friendships can weaken with the passing of time and the shock of life events.

Friendships can also be viewed in another way: the relations can be thought of as a social network that is “fluid, shifting” (Boissevain, 1974: 48). Confirming this, Grossetti (2005) demonstrated that there is “a constant turnover” in personal relationships, developing from family at birth through to friends at school, and then changing as co-workers and neighbours come and go in adulthood. In this respect, social networks are affected by social mobility, not in the sense of movement in economic class, but insofar as people experience changes in their social context and geographic location. Key life stage events, such as marriage, cause perturbations affecting both the size and structure of the network (see for example Kalmijn, 2003; Wellman et al., 1997). However, kin relationships are more likely to persist over time than relationships with non-kin, even if contact is infrequent.

People have few friends compared to the number of people around them; that is, social networks are of low density, despite the fact that most modern life is spent in urban settings where people are in constant close proximity.  Many studies show that physical proximity increases the likelihood of social closeness, especially with non-kin (Heider, 1958: 188-189; Fischer, 1982; Cummings et al, 2006; Mok et al., 2007).  In 2000 just over half of British adults had close relatives living nearby and three quarters had nearby close friends.  Many of these were seen daily, suggesting that geographical nearness was a property of the relations in question, for otherwise this frequency of contact would not have been possible (Coulthard et al., 2002: 54). Being together is what friends do, it would appear, even if the social geography in which these friendships occur is one that is populated by many strangers, that is, in Simmel’s anonymous modernity.

Communications technology and human connection

The way these physically close connections with friends and kin are maintained is less well understood. What is sure is that the frequency of face-to-face meetings falls dramatically with increasing distance (Smoreda and Thomas, 2001; Quan-Haase and Wellman, 2002: 305; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Larsen et al., 2006: 112; Frei and Axhausen, 2009). Nevertheless, it would seem obvious that technologies that enable some amelioration of the effect of distance will affect social networks – even if how they actually do that is manifold, and even sometimes opaque.

New transport and communications technologies have enabled people to interact over increasing distance. But, those interactions are diverse and subtle. Roads not only allow more frequent visits but also allow speedier sending of the gifts of friendship; postal systems deliver content but also help create a cultural sensibility to make social bonds through the written word (Henkin, 2007). Telephones do not just allow voice to be conveyed over distance, but foster the desire to chit-chat and thus make friendship in new ways (Fisher, 1992). Research on the impact of communication technologies shows that they can increase the strength of friendship connections in rather particular ways (Schiano et al., 2002; Boase, 2008).  The frequency of phone calls, fixed or mobile, becomes less frequent as distance increases, though they are of longer duration; but phones are important in maintaining friendships, especially strong ones, regardless of the frequency or ease with which face-to-face meetings can occur (Wellman, 1996; Wellman et al., 1997; Cummings et al., 2002; Quan-Haase and Wellman, 2002: 305; Coulthard et al., 2002; Licoppe and Smoreda, 2005; Larsen et al., 2006: 112).  And Carrasco et al. (2008) noted the importance of email in maintaining contact in a way not facilitated by phones.

The internet is the most recent technology to affect the process of friendship. Early studies, in the 1990s, used rather simple measures that suggested that the more time people spent on the internet, the fewer friendships they had, because spending time on the internet was treated as an alternative to investing time in friendships. This led to the formulation of the so-called ‘internet paradox’, the inverse relationship between time spent on the internet and friendship (Kraut et al., 1998). However, social networking technologies were then less advanced and less widely used than they are today, and internet behaviour often entailed playing very crude online games where little communication with other players was possible. It is hardly surprising therefore that the internet paradox was refuted by the same researchers a few years later (Kraut et al., 2002) when new social networking applications began to appear. By this time motives for using the web had altered too. The later research suggested that internet interaction helped foster friendships across the board.

Another set of researchers drew a distinction between types of experience people have with one another and the friendships that resulted. Friendships deepen and sustain themselves when ‘quality time’ is invested in them, these researchers asserted (Nie et al., 2000). In this view, good friendships exist when people spend time together. Other forms of connection, in which the parties are physically apart, were less rich and hence less consequential. Accordingly, use of internet-enabled techniques to communicate across distance could undermine friendship if that were the primary mode of contact, especially if it led people to spend less ‘quality time’ with each other. This research showed some concern with the patterns of friendship and friendship networks through time, although this was implied rather than researched. A greater concern was revisiting the internet paradox argument.

However, a growing body of literature has emerged that suggests that the impact of the internet on friendship is related to social type: people who are more sociable online are more sociable offline too (Di Gennaro and Dutton, 2007; Wang and Wellman, 2010). Those who do not make use of connections online are also more likely to have few friends offline (Dutton et al., 2009: 5). This research suggests some of the reasons why friendship networks vary in size and in density, with some people having consistently more friends on the internet through time than others: it is because they would have more friends whatever the technological infrastructure at hand. This infrastructure eases the work of ‘keeping in touch’, allowing those who have a propensity to leverage such opportunities to do so, while leaving those with less inclination to do otherwise. Claims about the internet paradox have come to be seen as somewhat orthogonal to these (and indeed other) sorts of questions.

Investigating the impact of the internet

One such question is the topic of this paper: how has the duration of friendship ties been affected by the coming of the internet? Answering this question poses some difficulty, however. Despite the increasing sophistication of these debates it is becoming apparent that the standard sociological data typically evoked to explain social action –gender, age, income, education – when combined with such things as internet access times and site usage, are not sufficient to analyse the ways that friendship is being shaped by this technology. Nor are these data rich enough to explore how the technology in turn is being shaped by friendship (Di Gennero and Dutton, 2007). Other factors need to be uncovered.

Solutions to these concerns may be at hand, however. New kinds of data are being made available by the internet beyond the enervating counts of access volumes and duration that have been hitherto relied upon. As Savage & Burrows (2007) note,  social network data can provide opportunities not just for researching the scale of friendship but for a whole host of sociological topics including ‘points of view’ within capitalist society (2007: 891).  While agreeing, we would add that the kinds of evidence that are being garnered through analysis of social connections made through services like Facebook does not suggest that the essential material of sociological inquiry is altering as much as might have been hoped. For example, Ellison et al. (2007) note that there is a strong link between the extant social capital that people bring to bear when they engage with others through social networking sites (SNS) and the duration of that social capital. SNS increase the lifecycle of human connection.  On the other hand, Henson et al.’s research (2010) is uncovering new forms of sociality and social identity, and they bring to bear huge aggregates of data to support their analysis. These data say little about the experience or process of friendship however, being more allied to the question of civic role in the age of networked technical support.

Discerning new characteristics in internet-mediated human friendship is not easy. As yet, no clear and comprehensive patterning governing how friendships are made, sustained, or come to wither on SNS  and other forms of mediated connection has been found (for a review see Author B, especially chapter 4). The relation between modes of contact and the processual character of friendship has also not been completely researched. It is easy to point out that more new connections are made via SNS than via other more traditional modes (Di Gennero and Dutton, 2007), but what happens thereafter is less well understood.  Although some years ago Urry (2003) implied that there might be a natural prosody to how often people would need to meet face-to-face in order to sustain close connection, more recent research shows that no such clear cut distinctions can be made (as I show, in my book Texture, 2010). Different modalities of communication afford different opportunities and constraints and people appropriate these in various ways, sometimes resisting and altering those affordances to use the technology in new ways (Papacharissi, 2011: 304-318). As Sosik et al. (2011) illustrate: although Facebook only affords asynchronous and primarily textual modalities of expression, these limitations do not weaken friendships. Users put effort into making their acts of communication within Facebook more adroit and powerful because of these limits. There is still much to learn about how different sorts of communication media affect the process of friendship.

This brings us back to Savage and Burrows. They propose that sociology should invite new methodologies and tools. Lynne, Nigel and I all agree that concerns deriving from apparently  premature judgements about internet-mediated changes on social connection, common agreement about the limitation of current data taxonomies, and deficiencies in understanding the relation between the internet and other technologies, lead us to suggest that one new method is especially worthy of investigation . Though it does not transform the source of sociological data (something that drew the attention of Savage and Burrows) this method uses computational techniques to treat data in novel ways. This technique is computational agent-based modelling.

Agent-based Modelling

This kind of modelling is not an alternative to the traditional sociological methods of observation, interview and survey, nor of those new sources of data that Savage and Burrows propose. Indeed, without such data collection, modelling of any kind would be impossible. Agent-based modelling is rather a way of consolidating the data that are available, and can bring together the qualitative and the quantitative in ways that were not possible before.

A major limitation of the ‘traditional’ qualitative and quantitative sociological studies is that they generate data that represent essentially static moments in social processes: they show a snapshot at one point in time. Longitudinal studies lasting over several years are rare, but again offer links between what are essentially static points. Agent-based modelling, meanwhile, not only captures the outcomes of process, but presents those processes as inspectable phenomena, insofar as investigators can alter the variables so as to test the adequacy of the model against various known or certain data samples.

Relatedly, the act of building an agent model itself can help investigators think about a problem and clarify their own hypothesis or motivating questions. Adjusting the model can expose implicit assumptions that might not otherwise have been appreciated, can identify variables that had not been considered, and can even raise questions of definition about the form or dynamics of relationships. All of this can help investigators better assess the relative importance of various factors suggested by more traditional forms of data gathering and theory.

Furthermore, modelling can be used to test theories about dynamic social processes by facilitating experimentation that for practical or ethical reasons is impossible to conduct in any other way. Modelling permits researchers to address ‘what if’ questions that simply cannot be addressed by any other means.

To sum up, following Epstein (2008), there are four key reasons to model:

•to test theories of explanation;

•to explore dynamics;

•to formulate questions (and thereby guide data collection);

•to examine possible outcomes.

There are of course many different types of modelling. However, the newly emerging computational agent-based modelling has two characteristics that seem especially useful in relation to the impact of the internet on the duration of friendships. First, it is good at tracing out the dynamics of social relations such as the processual concerns in relation to friendship, for example.

Second, agent-based modelling facilitates experimentation, allowing tests of the importance of different factors. As mentioned above, recent research about the internet has shown that an increasing number of diverse factors are important. Understanding of the relations of these data is often inadequate. Agent-based modelling can help test which factors would seem to be most likely to explain the emerging evidence about internet use and its relation to friendship, and it can do so with the limited data that is available. As a case in point, Casilli and Tubaro (2010) combine ethnographic data about friendship enabled through Facebook with agent-based modelling to explore how different types of individual action can affect the overall macro structure of a social netwo Friendship is one of the most profoundly subjective of experiences. But friendship also has what Simmel called ‘formal properties’: patterned dimensions manifest at an objective level. This paper has investigated one of these properties: namely the duration of friendship. In particular, it has addressed the question: how has the duration of friendship ties been affected by the coming of the internet? Because of the problems of using traditional sociological techniques to answer this question, this paper has used agent-based modelling. This modelling provides a quantitative assessment based on a set of plausible, consistent assumptions that can be varied thus permitting experimentation. It provides both a framework for answering some questions and a method to investigate concerns that cannot be addressed by more conventional means.

What do we find?

On the basis of the assumptions we made, this model suggests that the internet is unlikely to increase the number of core friends, but it may make these relationships more stable. The model indicates that:

Between 1998 and 2009, the average number of core friends had increased from 5.4 to 5.6. Although these averages suggest little overall change, some individuals have been affected significantly. By 2009, almost 1 in 5 had at least one friend in their core network who would not have been had there been no internet effect: 1 in 25 had more than one such friend.

Onliners were more likely to maintain at least one core member over the 11 years. Without the internet, 40 per cent would have had a persistence rate of zero i.e. none of the members of their original core network would have still been there at the end of the period; while with the internet, this fell to 36 per cent. Although the internet has had little effect on the average persistence rate of core ties so far, in the longer term it could affect it significantly, even raising it to as much as two thirds.

In sum, the modelling suggests that the number of friends that people might call close, or intimate, will likely remain fairly similar with the internet. This may seem surprising, given the hyperbole that often goes with discussion of the internet suggestive that social ties are weakening, that historical stability is being replaced by social fluidity (See for example Bauman 2005). What the internet appears to do is slow the pace of change, so friendships last longer. The oft-heard idea that the internet is creating change would seem to be egregious if by that is meant change in sociality. Our modelling suggests the reverse: the internet creates more stability through time. If this is so, such stability may help to assuage the loneliness of modernity that Simmel describes. One may also reflect on Giddens’ explorations of the reflexivity of identity, and his view that people have to negotiate who they are through the myriad relations they form with others (1991). Our model suggests that this might not be such a burden as Giddens implies.

Relatedly, the modelling suggests that the importance of geography is reducing with the internet, but again, not greatly. Certainly one might say that friendships sustain themselves longer when geographical distance is increased. This is evidenced by Dutton and Blank’s (2011: 38) finding that the internet has increased contact with friends and family who live further away. But being near still counts. Again, how does this relate to the claims about the move away from the door-to-door society? Cairncross’s book (2001), The Death of Distance is evidently offering an erroneous but commonplace view.

And this in turn suggests that the internet is not simply a means of making, keeping and moving on from contacts. It, rather, affords particular forms of sociality. This sheds a different light on the arguments about the internet paradox. These suggested that there is a difference between the kind of relation enabled by face-to-face and by internet-mediated connections. It was proposed that there is a contrast between the ‘quality time’ delivered by bodies being co-proximate as against the weak and anodyne bonds made through the keyboard. What our modelling suggests, in contrast, is that the links made possible through the internet are as vital as any other, but that they may be of another kind. And what we are thinking of here is not a distinction between, say, the virtual and the real. We need to distinguish those who can foster human connection, whether it is mediated or not, and those who do not or cannot foster such mediated connection. It is Bourdieau’s habitus that is evoked, not arguments about space, time or volume of connection (see Mistzal, 1996: especially 102-156). This term is now somewhat old, but perhaps it could be brought up to date with the protocols of the internet social network site as its mis en scène. It is De Certeau’s ‘practice of everyday life’ (1984) when that entails routine use of Facebook. What is required is a move from observing behaviours in Paris to observing them on the world wide web of activity, the habitus enabled by Palo Alto.


Bibliography

Bauman, Z (2005) Liquid Life, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Barnard A (2009) The effect of taxes and benefits on household income, 2007/. Available at: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_social/Taxes-Benefits-2007-2008/Taxes_benefits_0708.pdf

Boase J (2008) Personal networks and the personal communication system. Information, Communication & Society. 11(4): 490-508.

Boissevain J (1974) Friends of Friends: Networks, Manipulators and Coalitions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Cairncross F (2001) The Death of Distance 2.0: How the Communications Revolution will Change Our Lives. London: Texere Publishing.

Carrasco J-A, Hogan B, Wellman B and Miller EJ (2008) Agency in Social Activities Interactions: The Role of Social Networks in Time and Space. Royal Dutch Geographical Society, 562- 583 Available at: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/netlab/PUBLICATIONS/_frames.html

Casilli A and Tubaro P (2010) Légitimation intersubjective de la présence en ligne et formation de réseaux sociaux: une approche ethno-computationnelle. Available at: http://www.bodyspacesociety.eu/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/CasilliTubaro_Article_RT26.pdf

Coulthard M, Walker A, and Morgan A (2002) People’s perceptions of their neighbourhood and community involvement: Results from the social capital module of the General Household Survey 2000. Office for National Statistics. London: The Stationery Office.

Cummings J, Butler B, and Kraut R (2002) The quality of online social relationships. Communications of the ACM 4(7): 103-108. New York: ACM Press.

Cummings J, Lee J, and Kraut R (2006) Communication technology and Friendship During the Transition from High School to College. In Kraut R, Brynin M, Kiesler S (eds) Computer, Phones and the Internet. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 265-278.

De Certeau M (1984) The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Di Gennaro C and Dutton WH (2007) Reconfiguring friendships: social relationships and the internet. Information, Communication & Society 10(5): 591-618.

Dutton WH and Blank G (2011) Next Generation Users: The Internet in Britain. Oxford Internet Survey 2011. Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/oxis2011_report.pdf.

Dutton WH, Helsper E, and Gerber M (2009) The Internet in Britain 2009. Oxford Internet Institute. Available at: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/oxIS2009_Report.pdf.

Ellison NB, Steinfgiedl C and Lampe, C (2007) The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 12, pp1143-1168.Epstein JM (2008).

Why Model? Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. 4(12).  Available at: http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/11/4/12.html

Fischer CS (1982) To Dwell Among Friends. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frei A and Axhausen K (2009) Modelling the Frequency of Contacts in a Shrunken World. Available at: http://www.ivt.ethz.ch/vpl/publications/reports/ab532.pdf

Giddens A (1991) Modernity and Self-identity. Oxford: Polity Press.

Grossetti M (2005) Where do Social Relations come from? A Study of Personal Networks in the Toulouse area of France. Social Networks 27(4): 289-300.

Heider F (1958) The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

Helsper E (2008) Digital Inclusion. Department of Communities and Local Government. Available at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/digitalinclusionanalysis

Henkin DM (2007) The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kalmijn M (2003) Shared friendship networks and the life course. Social Networks. 25: 231-249.

Kraut RE, Patterson M, Lundmark V,  Kiesler S, Mukhopadhyay T, and Schlerlis W (1998) Internet paradox: A social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well-being? American Psychologist 53(9): 1017-1032.

Kraut RE, Kiesler S, Boneva B, Cummings J, Helgeso V, and Crawford A (2002) Internet Paradox Revisited. Journal of Social Issues. 58(1): 49-74.

Larsen J, Urry J and Axhausen KW (2006) Social networks and future mobilities. Report to the Horizons Programme of the Department for Transport, , University of Lancaster & ETH Zürich. Available at: http://www.ivt.ethz.ch/vpl/publications/reports/ab330.pdf.

Licoppe C and Smoreda Z (2005) Are social networks technologically embedded? How networks are changing today with changes in communications technology. Social Networks, 27: 317-335.

Hansen D, Shneiderman B and Smith MA (2011) Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL, Elsevier  Burlington,  MA.

Mistzal BA (1996) Trust in Modern Societies: The search for the basis of social order. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mok D, Wellman B and Basu R (2007) Did Distance Matter Before the Internet? Interpersonal Contact and Support in the 1970s. Social Networks. 29(3): 430-461.

Nie N, Hillygus S and Erbring, L (2000) Internet use: interpersonal relations and sociality. In Wellman B, Haythornwaite, C (eds) The Internet and Everyday Life, Blackwell, Oxford: 215-45.

Pahl R and Pevalin D (2005) Between family and friends: a longitudinal study of friendship choice, The British Journal of Sociology, 56(3): 433-450.

Papacharissi Z (Ed) (2011) A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, London: Routledge.

Quan-Haase A and Wellman B (2002) Capitalizing on the Net. In Wellman B,  Haythornwaite C (eds) The Internet in Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell: 291-324.

Savage M, Burrows R (2007) The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology, in Sociology, 41: 885-898.

Schiano DJ, Chen EP, Ginsberg J, Gretarsdottir U and Huddleston M (2002) Teen use of messaging media. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems CHI ’02 extended abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Interactive Posters. Minneapolis, 20-25 April. New York: ACM Press, 594–595.

Simmel G (1922/1955) Conflict and The Web of Group-Affiliations. Translated by Wolff, KH and Bendix R. London: Free Press-Macmillan.

Smoreda Z and Thomas F (2001) Social Networks and Residential ICT Adoption and Use. COST269: EURESCOM Summit. Heidelberg.

Sosik V, Zhao X, and Cosley D (2012) See Friendship, Sort of: How Conversation and Digital Traces Support Reflection on Friendships, in Proceedings of CSCW 2012, ACM Press: 1145-1154.

Urry J (2003) Social Networks, Travel and Talk, British Journal of Sociology,  54(2): 155–175.

Wang H and Wellman B (2010) Social Connectivity in America: Changes in Adult Friendship Network Size from 2002 to 2007. American Behavioral Scientist, 53 (8): 1148-69 Available at: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman/publications/social-connectivity/social-connectivity.pdf.

Wellman B (1996) Are personal communities local? A Dumptarian reconsideration. Social Networks. 18: 247-354.

Wellman B, Wong RY, Tindall D, and Nazer N (1997) A decade of network change: turnover, persistence and stability in personal communities. Social Networks. 19(1): 27-50.

The concept of communications overload and the sociology of mobile communications

30 Apr

I prepared this piece as a sketch of one of the arguments in my book Texture (MIT, 2011) and, since it is brief, I think it is worth sharing. Besides, a version of the following is to appear in the Sage journal ‘Mobile Media & Communication’, full citation to follow, and that journal may well be of interest too.

http://www.sagepub.com/journalsProdDesc.nav?prodId=Journal202140

 

April 2012

Our lives are busy. All of us are busy. Too busy, we all complain. And then there is communication, so much of it indeed that, with everything else, we are overloaded. ‘Enough Already!’ one can hear us all exclaim. One can hardly list the numerous self-help books written to deal with this dilemma.

So what is it that is making us so busy? What one can say is that it is not work that makes us so frenzied and rushed. Historians show that we give less time to work than ever. Today, most of the time people have is given over to things other than work. Some of these things haven’t altered with the centuries. People have to sleep, for example, and this takes up more time than almost anything else (about 37% of a day, according to some measures). They also have to eat and clean (another 9%). These are body related things, biological needs one might say. There are also needs related to society, ones that one might imagine alter over time, but this is not always the case: people spend as much of their lives travelling to and from work as they did a hundred years ago (about 6%). And then there are the contemporary things that we do: fiddling with our Facebook status updates, reading Twitter; emailing. What is sure is that the time allocated for these sorts of things is increasing, though the figures that might enable us to judge by just how much and with what velocity of change are difficult to interpret. There are gross figures for communicating that suggest that 8% of the day is given to it but these don’t allow for multitasking. Apparently, these time-measuring statistics are based on the assumption that individuals don’t do more than one thing at a time – or rather they have to assume this since their data is somewhat rough: multitasking is invisible in it. It is no wonder, then, that when one adds up all the time consumed by such measures, the doings of the day take longer than 24 hours (for discussion of these numbers see Harper, 2011, p37-45).

One can readily understand the methodological difficulties in this area – who wants to count the seconds one spends texting while one is watching the TV? If one leaves these difficulties aside, however, and simply looks at the overall balance of time, one will see a paradox: one sees that, when all the things that have to be done are done, the sleeping, the eating, the cleaning, the going to work (even though we spend less time at work than we used to), there isn’t much time left in an ordinary day for anything. Those activities we complain about as especially onerous time consumers – as filling our days up – don’t actually consume much time for the simple reason that there isn’t much time for them to consume. Here I am thinking of communicating: are our complaints about it overloading us really only about 8% of the day?

So, while it seems a truism to say we are currently burdened by overload – who would disagree? – careful consideration might lead us to discover that we don’t, in fact, really give much time to communicating, not to mediated communicating, the expressions that require some kind of transport in their functioning. Indeed, we don’t seem to give much to anything at all, apart from the remarkable amount of time we give to things we don’t really have a chance to alter – to the need of our own bodies for rest, for their upkeep, and presentation (eating, washing and dressing). Yet it seems to me that, and I admit this seems contrary, this doesn’t mean we are wrong to complain about communications overload. Though it is certainly the case that we might muddle things up, confusing the burdens of communications with the burden of all of things we have to do, we do indeed worry about how much we put into communication and for good reason. But time measures are not the issue here. Or, rather, they are not a helpful way of approaching what the grounds for our complaints and concerns might be.

It seems to me that when the phrase communication overload is used, we should assume that what is being alluded to is simply a quantitative phenomenon. Quantitative measures are sometimes useful, but only occasionally and even then have to be treated with care. Certainly, the way we ordinarily talk about some kinds of communication does imply the consumption of time, and sometimes too much time: ‘They do go on’, one can hear people say about another’s conversation; ‘Their emails are so prolix’ in another instance. And sometimes the use of the phrase alludes to the exchange of stuff, such that the more there is (of the stuff) the better it is for us involved in the communicating but by the same token also implying that sometimes there might be too much exchanging. Gossip and gossiping comes to mind. Here quantification might help. But these are instances of the many and varied things that acts of communication constitute and there are many other acts where such metrics don’t help (or fit).

There is a bigger issue afoot, however: we are starting from the wrong place. Instead of thinking of the phrase communication overload as merely empirical, and strictly arithmetical at that, we need to think of it as first and foremost a concept, as a tool used by people, a mechanism that lets them understand their world through describing it. Treating it this way will lead us to look at all its uses, and stop us confining our interest to just one such use (one that implies counting say). It will let us to unpack the many properties the concept has, the things implied when it is used, the things assumed in that use, the links it has to other concepts. It will let us come to understand what it helps people do, how it describes, how it organises their affairs. The view I am taking is Peter Winch’s interpretation (1958) of Wittgenstein rather than the approach offered by Strawson’s (1992) analytic philosophy; it is to show a concern for the forms of life that concept are related to and not merely their logical form.

One of the first properties one might want to highlight from this point of view is that the concept ‘communications overload’ is not very accurate or specific. It labels lots of things. When people complain of communications overload they are using a catch-all concept. I have already listed some examples of the things it labels. Here are some more: when people ‘communicate’ to other people they are showing, for example, a sensibility for family life. Sensibility seems some way from communication so what am I getting at? I am alluding to the fact that one of the things one does in families is listen, listen to one another irrespective of whether one has any interest in the topic at hand. Family life is about chatting, amongst other things. In another instance, people communicate because they are delighting in friendship: words might be exchanged, ideas remarked upon, but it is being with another that is at issue: that is what friendship can sometimes entail. In a third, when someone posts an update on an SNS, they are seeking ways of characterising themselves.

So, when people say ‘I am overloaded’ just what is it that they are saying? Do they mean to confine their remarks to the specific acts of communication, or to the point of a communication? Is about family life they are whinging, or are they thinking of friendship, or are they thinking about how little time they have to paint a portrait of themselves on their Facebook account? In other words, empirical referent is one concern that has to be treated carefully when one considers the concept.

This is not the only property of the concept that is important. Another has to do with the fact that when the term is used it refers to uniquely human affairs – this sounds tautological, since all the examples above are of human activities. What I mean is that the concept is used in a way that turns on the assumption that it is the particular and peculiar properties of human affairs that are at issue. These can be summed up by the term morally implicative. Human communication is always about what consequences individual acts of communication have for the relations between people, the character of those relations and their nature.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of this nor the delicate complexity of this fact. Consider some examples from my research. I have looked why old folks think communications acts say something about them and their relations, for example. They treat such acts as sets of doings that are judged and oriented to in particular ways. I have found that old folks condemn broadcast messaging (such as posting on Facebook) because it shows little deference for the individual recipient of a message, for the singularity of friendship. They prefer longer letters or emails. Thus the moral implications of acts of communication are central to how such acts are understood, selected, avoided, counted, ignored.

One example might seem insufficient to prove of my claim. Let me elaborate on another example which shows how delicate, complex but nevertheless moral are the consequences of communications. (All these are taken from my book Texture, 2011). I have mentioned above the sensibility that family life requires. In my studies of technologies like Whereabouts Clocks I have found that people use that technology to finesse their acts of family tenderness and affection – using the clock to know when to make tea just before someone comes home or to let them be more aware of where partners have been and thus better able to make small talk with those partners when they come home and need to unwind. The richness of communication acts are, then, great indeed; but this richness points towards the richness of social relations, their properties, their patterning through time: in commentaries and analyses we tend to sterilise them or at least offer descriptions that seem to lose the tendernesses they entail, the thoughtfulness they enable.

And here is the rub. If this is so and if this moral implicativeness is so delicate and complex, so rich and so vital to human affairs, so easy to misrepresent, so hard to characterise, what is the research agenda that is appropriate for this space? Or is it simple care that is demanded? Care is obviously requisite. But we still have much to learn. Despite many years of effort in mobile communications and media research, we are confronted by a number of difficulties.

They ensue when we rush too quickly to explanation before we have uncovered what the acts in question are essentially about or properly understood the concept used in relation to them. The examples above have been selected to show how there is an obvious link between the concept of overload and counting but how, at the same time, when people use the phrase overload, they might in fact be pointing towards the moral aspect of messaging. It’s not the counting of the messages that might be at issue, it might be friendship, or it might be family affection. If so, then the word overload might be a synonym for guilty indifference – in both contexts this would apply though the resonance in each would be different. A marriage partner is not the same as a friend, after all.

How does one examine this topic (or topics)? Can one count these forms of guilt? To be sure we can if we treat it in certain ways, asking people to give a number to their feelings, for example, surveying a population to see how many of them ‘feel guilt’. But doing so can obscure important properties of that emotion – especially when the concept is used, as in this illustration, in relation to friendship and –or family life. Take friendship: is it to be conceived of in terms of scale? Frequency of contact? Or its reverse: infrequency? Such a model seems calculative. One would not savour a friend who counted in this fashion. One wants them to feel – to feel for us: that is what friendship ought to be. All the more so in family life,  one might say.

So, does that mean that feeling is really the issue, the one that should be researched when people complain of overload? No,  of course not. I think the real task of research is to show how topics like this are linked to and made visible by talk about communication. The problem is to preserve that complexity, its delicate form, despite our desire to simplify, theorise, and distil – even the words we use can handicap us. Consider, I used the word essential: this implies that something is at the core of something, when all I meant was that one concern is more important that others, more salient perhaps, more at the heart of things and it is that which we are after, not platonic essentials.

Take another example of how easily our research can lack finesse. One thing obviously associated with the word communication is time, but not simply clock time. The counting of time hardly does justice to human experience. The full prism of social connection is manifest in how social connections are at once prospective and retrospective, in the here and now and sensed as things to be done and things that were done. Individual acts of communication need to be understood in terms of the topography of connection through time. But how does one research that? It might seem easy, merely a question of empirical traces. Let me return now to the question of guilt. Traces might not be the issue. An interest in communication, with acts of communication, can lead one to ignore those social relations that don’t appear to entail any act. If it is the case, as I mention above, that one can sometimes feel guilty about not responding to a communication, or acting appropriately as a result of one, there are some instances, some occasions, where the absence of such acts – of any kind – doesn’t foster guilt. Quite the reverse: the absence of contact is viewed as good behaviour. As Simmel noted in his essay, How is Society Possible? Part of the good grace that is required in modernity is the capacity on the part of every individual to ignore strangers they come to share space with as part of the contingencies and necessities of life. One sits next to strangers on the bus or the metro; one queue’s besides anonymous others in the shops; one laughs in the theatre along with people one doesn’t know; one gracefully looks away from the unidentifiable man making a mobile phone call in earshot. In our focus on the physical acts of communication, or in seeking traces of acts in the past and planned for ones in the future, we must avoid neglecting these silences and gentle looking aways, those moments when people chose as it were not to speak, to not communicate at all, even to glance, now, or indeed ever. Their choice to not act expresses in itself an alertness to the fact that they have no right to communicate to, for example, the present other. They choose not to communicate as a way of showing respect.

When we choose to communicate and when we chose not to, in other words, we are making many distinctions. Thus, when it comes to communications overload, we need to be clear about the distinction that pertains. When we assert ‘Enough Already!’ is it enough communication with those who have rights to communicate to us that we are thinking of? Is it their rights to demand of us a response to every act they make that irks us? Or are we thinking of the burdens we place on others, some of which might have been mistakes, when we sought communication with those we do not know and hitherto had no right to chat to, to call, to email, to text and thus found, by default as it were, that we had opened up a system of communication: first this, then that in an never ending circle? Are we guilty for the burden we have placed on others, one that can last for the eternity of our lives: ‘I introduced myself, I can hardly ignore him now’.

The distinctions I am drawing here are, of course, curiously one way: one cannot undo the rights to communicate, even to those one has fallen out with. For if we choose to ignore their messages, they know, as our mutual friends do, that our doing so is an act of enmity. We speak volumes by not answering. But thus it is that we need to be careful about who we allow to become part of our social world, who we allow in, for in the future their demands for a communication might burden us down.

In sum, when the phrase communication overload is used, so many things are meant, so many possibilities implied. It would be wrong to say that analysts of the age of communication should avoid the term themselves, seeking perhaps to come up with their own labels and measures. I do not think that the everyday use of the term is poor, or inadequate or confused. I do not think it needs replacing by something better. My point is that its use is incredible complex and subtle and adroit. We would do well to investigate those complexities with similar adroitness: it’s what people do with the term that matters, they why of it, the how of it, the texture that results. This is the business of the human act of communication. It should be ours, too, as analysts of that business.

References

R. Harper (2011) Texture: Human expression in the age of communications overload. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (book).

G. Simmel (1971) ‘How is Society Possible?’ in On individuality and social forms, Chicago: Chicago University Press (book).

P.F. Strawson (1992) Analysis and Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press (book).

P. Winch (1958) The idea of a Social Science and its relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul (book).

All the dialogues about trust, computing and society: why?

18 Apr

Any glance at the contemporary intellectual landscape would make it clear that trust and computing is of considerable interest. And by this I do not mean that this has to do with whether computers can be relied upon to do their job; that they simply have to do as they are told. If only it were as simple as that – an interface. As Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed, (2010) when people rely on computers in their everyday life it is not like Miss Daisy trusting in her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination. It’s not what computers are told that is the issue. It’s what computers tell us, the humans. With computing, so Rushkoff wants to have us believe, there is no knowing what the destination is: it is unclear what it is that the humans are trusting in or for. John Naughton, in his From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg (2012), asks similarly large questions and here too the topic of the ‘interface’ seems inconsequential: for him we need to ask whether we can trust computing (and the internet in particular) to bring us dystopia or a heaven – though the contrast he presents is not entirely without irony: it is the duplicitous appeal of Huxley’s Brave New World or the bleakness of Orwell’s Nineteen Eight Four. Meanwhile, Pariser complains in his Filter Bubble (2011) that we cannot trust search engines anymore; today, in the age of The Cloud and massive aggregation systems, search engine providers can hide things away from us in ways that we could not guess. Doing so is at once sinister and capitalistic, Pariser argues; sinister since it is disempowering, capitalistic since it places the market above the public good. Search engines take you to what companies want to sell, not to what you need to know. One time capitalist himself William Davidow is likewise agitated, though it’s not salesmanship that worries him: we are now Overconnected (2011), as he argues in his eponymous book: we cannot trust ourselves to reason properly. This is merely a list of well-known texts in the public domain, there are equally many in the more scholarly world of philosophy, sociology and, of course, computer science. In the first of these there are so many journal papers as to be immense, whether it be Holton’s Deciding to Trust, coming to Believe paper of 1994 or Baier’s book Essays on Moral Prejudice (1994); in sociology there at least as many, including Mitstzal (1996), Mollering (2006) and Gambetta’s edited collection of 1988 (including as it does some philosophers, such as Williams). In computer science and human computer interaction (HCI) there are as many, with Piotr Cofta’s The Trustworthy and Trusted Web of 2011 being one of the most recent. The sheer volume and scale of this discourse leads one to doubt whether any single, unified view will arise out of it even if many of the authors in question want to offer one: Bruce Schneier, though not an academic, comes to mind with his highly readable Liars and Outliers, Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive (2012).

Navigating the domain

So what is one to make of this all? It seems to me that we have to stop rushing to answer what trust is – even if in the end we might come to seek such an answer. Rather, at the moment, and given the wealth of views currently being presented on the topic, we need to ask something about trust that is as it were prior to the question of what it is. We need to ask why all the fuss about trust now? Having done this we can inquire into how these current concerns are effecting what is treated as trust, how that trust is ‘theorised’ and what are the ways that evidence are brought to bear on discussions about that theorised object.

The sociologist Luhmann noted in his essay Familiarity and Trust (1988) that societies seem to make trust a topic of concern at certain historical moments – they need to arrange themselves so as to make trust a possibility and a worry. This interest does not seem to have much to do with trust itself – in its a-historic or transcendental conceptual sense (even if Luhmann had an interest in that himself). It has to do with a particular confluence of concerns that lead societies to reflect on certain things at particular times. This argument is in accord with Richard Rorty’s view about how to understand ideas and concepts in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). In this view, appreciating debates about some concern requires one to see them as historical (even contemporary debates). Doing so entails dissecting the links between views of other apparently disconnected concerns, to create maps of the historical topography of ideas and investigation into the performative goal or goals that lay behind the development and deployment of the ideas in question. It requires, in sum, understanding the ‘when’ of an argument and the ‘so what?’ of it – what it led to.

Let me illustrate what is meant by this in relation to arguments about trust and computing. A decade ago, the philosopher Onora O’Neill offered an account of trust in the Reith Lectures (2002). She wanted to characterise some of the essential, true elements of trust and its basis in action. Hers purported to be an a-historic view, a concern simply with the conceptual fabric of the term. She claimed that trust between people is a function of being near one another. By that she did not mean near in a moral or social sense. She meant in terms of the body. This might seem a strange argument, but bear with me. It comes down to the idea that people trust each other because they can touch each other; because they can see each other, their every movement; that people can, say, grasp another at will and be grasped back in turn: because they are altogether, in one place. Trust would seem to turn on cuddles. This is of course to paraphrase O’Neill. But, given this, a problem occurs when distances are introduced into social relations such that people can no longer cuddle. Trust is weakened if not dissolved. Mechanisms need to be developed, O’Neill argued, that make ties between bodies separated by space possible. In her lectures, she explored various answers to the question of how trust could be made.

Why did O’Neill come up with this view? It seems quite stark; almost startling certainly to one who has not confronted it before. If truth be told, I have simplified her case and used a colourful way of illustrating it, though I do not think mischaracterised it. In presenting it thus, however, one can begin to see that there might be very profound links between it and the context, the historical context in which it was presented. This was just a decade ago and although it seems an eternity in terms of the internet it is the internet that I think is key to that context. And, it is in light of that context, that the credit one should give to O’Neill’s views lie. It seems to me that O’Neill was putting forth a view about the relationship between our bodies, our location in space, and the trust that was fostered (or not) by the use of contemporary technologies of communication, most especially internet-related ones. Her theory of the nature of trust (assuming for the moment that one can call it a theory), was created against the backdrop of the problems of trust and communication highlighted by the internet. With the latter, the human body seemed to be visibly absent and, since trust was problematic on the internet, by dint of that the body must be the seat of trust in ‘normal’ (non-internet) settings of action. Hence O’Neill’s theory.

As it happens, O’Neill did not refer very much to the internet in her lectures. The important point I am wanting to make is that, to understand O’Neill, one does not have to accept the idea that the presence of the body in any universal sense is always essential to trust: one simply has to accept that the absence of the body in acts of communication is a problem in the context of contemporary society, in the internet society. If one places her argument in context one sees that that is in fact what she is writing about. It is, as it were, her starting point. Something about the acts of communication we undertake on the internet make the location of the body – its presence/absence – salient. So, following in Luhmann’s and Rorty’s view, what we have in O’Neill’s lectures is a historically situated claim. Now one could say that historisizing her argument is perhaps reducing the credit it should be given. That is not my intention – though this might not be clear at the moment. One of the reasons why I choose her view to illustrate my case was because her argument was quite often presented at that time. It is in this sense exemplary. As it happens the argument has continued to be argued. Be that as it may, what I have thus far sought to show is the topographical relationship between O’Neill’s ideas and socio-technical context. But one also needs to consider its performativity. In having raised an argument, an argument can thus be assessed, considered, brought to bear; one has to consider also where the argument was deployed, for whom. In my view, what O’Neill was doing in her Lectures was getting the public to think about the role of philosophy, and to suggest that, despite appearances otherwise, philosophy can concern itself with everyday concerns, ones even to do with the body. Whether she succeeded in persuading the public of the relevance of philosophy I do not know, but what one can say is that she got the argument widespread attention, even if she was not the only advocate of it. As Charles Ess and May Thorseth (Eds) discuss in Trust and Virtual Worlds (2011), the idea that it is the absence of the body that undermines trust came to be cultivated when new communications technologies enabled by the internet began to take off – in the nineteen nineties – O’Neill’s the Reith Lectures are illustrative of this ‘cultural moment’. In research since, as Ess and Thorseth show, this link between body and trust can be seen to have been exaggerated. O’Neill can now be seen to be putting forth too strong a case. The purpose of placing arguments in context and exploring their performative consequences, however, should be to make it clear that one ought not to judge attempts to explore trust by a simple right or wrong metric. In historisizing a point of view, we can also see what that point of view might help create, the dialogues it led to and the richer understandings that ensued. It seems to me that O’Neill (and others who put forward her perspective at that time) helped foster discussions, analysis and debate and more nuanced understandings about the role of the body in social relations. The value of O’Neil, part of the success of her argument, is to be found in the fact that this topic was (and is still being) more thoroughly examined than it might otherwise have been.

To locate the discussion of trust, computing and society in time, in the contemporary moment, and to present and consider those arguments in terms of what they seek to attain is of course a big enterprise. There are many such arguments, and there are various goals behind them. Their topography is diverse, their performativities also. Some come from quite particular specialist areas, such as the computer science domain known as Human Computer Interaction (HCI). This has been looking at how to design trust into systems for many years. Criteria for success have to do with the practical use of designs, and less to do with any philosophical aspirations to define trust in a universal sense. Other arguments have their provenance in, for example, sociology and here the topic of trust turns out to be specifically how the concept is used performatively in social action: it is not what the sociologists think trust ought to be that is the topic but how people in everyday life use the concept. In addition to the sociological and the HCI perspectives, there are also philosophical points of view, and here the concern is to address the topic as a species of concept, as illustrative of the stuff of philosophical inquiries. Methods and means of argument are different from those found in, say, sociology, just as they are from those found in HCI. There are also arguments from the domain of technology itself (if not from HCI), and by that I mean from the point of view of those who engineer the systems that constitute the internet as we know it and as it is coming to be: this is the view, broadly speaking, of computer science. From this perspective –admittedly a broad camp – issues to do with distinguishing between systems trustable in engineering terms and systems whose use begs questions about the trustability (or otherwise) of users is prominent. And then we have arguments that are more in the public domain, of the type that were listed in the first paragraph. These are ones that are helping constitute the narrative of our age, what society thinks it is about and what it needs to focus on.

These diverse arguments cannot be added up and a sum made. As should be clear, they need each to be understood as part of the mis-en-scène of contemporary life. And each needs to be judged in terms of their diverse goals. Key, above all, is to see how they variously help foster a dialogue and sense of perspective on the large and sometimes worrisome topic that is trust, technology and society: maybe that is the answer to my question, to the question that led to this blog: why are there so many dialogues about trust, computing and society.

 

Selected Bibliography

Davidow,W. Overconnected, Headline Publishing (2011).

Cofta, P. The Trustworthy and Trusted Web, Now Publihsers (2011).

Ess, C. & Thorseth, M. (Eds) Trust and Virtual Worlds, Peter Lang (2011).

Gergen, K. Relational Being, OUP. (2009).

Hollis, M Trust withing Reason, CUP, (1998)

Lessig, L. Remix, Penguin (2008)

Luhmann,N. (1988) Familiarity and Trust, in Gambetta,D. (Ed) Trust, Blackwell, pp 94-107.

Masum, H. & Tovey, Ms The Reputation Society, MIT (2011).

Mitzal, B. Trust in Moderr Societies, Polity Press, (1996)

Möllering, G. Trust: Reason, Routine, Reflexivity, Elsevier (2006)

Naughton, J. From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg, Quercus (2012).

Pariser, E. Filter Bubble, Viking (2011).

Rorty, R. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton (1979).

O’Neill, O. the Reith Lectures, The BBC (2002).

Schneier, B. Liars and Outliers: Enabling the trust that society needs to thrive, John Wiley (2012).

Rushkoff, D. Program or be Programmed, Soft Skull Press (2010).

The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry

27 Mar

I have been doing some research with a PhD from Austin, Texas, Eryn Whitworth. Eryn has been interviewing users of Facebook both here, in England, and in the USA, particularly younger users – late teens, twenty some-things. Most of them are complaining that Facebook makes them feel constrained, constrained as regards how they orient to time. Apparently, it makes everything seem too instant, their actions on Facebook seem ‘kind of rushed’. To paraphrase, they feel that their actions on this SNS  ‘are like too now’.  To put it in more sterile words: something about the experience of Facebook affects their sense of the past, the future, of how the temporal arrangements of their doings normally are.

I think these complaints, although not expressed in ways that might be immediately clear, are pointing to real issues, though I think it is in the use of Facebook as much as anything intrinsic to Facebook technology that produces that oddness – this is socio-technical shaping we have here, not technological determinism. Be that as it may, the research I have been doing with Eryn – what it is pointing towards – is leading me to think not just about SNS, but about much contemporary philosophy and HCI, the design space I work within. It is allowing me to make links between, for example, the causalism avowed by many Anglo Saxon analytic philosophers from the Sixties onwards and the contrasting concerns of Wittgenstein in Cambridge, England, before that; it leads me to Derrida too and his fellow Parisian Lefebvre; and it leads to contemporary Wittgensteinians, such as Theodore Schatzki at the University of Kentucky, whose work has been published in the past twenty years. And this, in turn, is making rethink some of my own research (such as reported in my book, Inside the IMF (1998) and in my current research on designing new social network experiences.

The links that have been formulating in my mind are as follows. There is a so-called orthodoxy in main stream analytic philosophy that derives from Donald Davidson who wrote, in 1963, that ‘common sense’ reasons are, more or less, descriptions of ‘the causes’ of human action. His view was that, though common sense may not be equal to a scientific analysis, nevertheless it was the right way to think of human action in this particular respect: action is caused in the way that common sense implied, he wanted to argue. Davidson hoped to add some sensitivity to this claim by noting, amongst other things, that there might be lots of causal reasons that could be deployed to explain or describe action. It might be difficult therefore to actually ascertain what the ‘real’ ones were in any particular instance. This made scientific studies of human action different from scientific studies of, say, physical objects, where the essential true cause of things could be found with certainty. This led him to coin the odd term anomalous monism, to label the fact that, in his view, science is the way to understand human experience, but there are oddities about the problem: it presents anomalies to standard science.

In my view – and the views of many though it has to be said not the vocal majority – Davidson’s argument is peculiar for a whole host of reasons. Most particularly it is odd in that it limits the ways that human nature and experience can be understood, explored and described. Instead of relying on and exploiting the enormously rich everyday forms of expressions we have, his view is in effect a proposal to replace that richness with what can what best be described as the stubborn and narrow  language of one who awkwardly insists on there ‘having to be’ only ‘one’ way of understanding human action. This narrow view turns around the idea, the dogma, that actions are always caused, and hence only the vocabulary of causality can be used to explore that action. This view can also be said to make human time linear: a thing causes action through time, in sequence. Thus Donaldson’s causalism is also a kind of temporal linearism.

Without saying any more about the limits of Davidson just now, basically what he did was disregard the transformation that Ludwig Wittgenstein had brought about in philosophy in the decade before Davidson wrote, namely, a transformation that freed philosophy of its dogmas. Davidson unfortunately allowed dogmas to be revived, and indeed added a dogma, that actions were caused and had to be caused (and hence a dogma that human action is to be understood through time, as linear).

Wittgenstein had created his transformation by arguing that explanations of, for example, ‘ultimate causes’, was really a corruption of how to properly understand the nature of language and the way it is used to account for, describe and constitute human life. In Wittgenstein’s view (in my opinion the correct view), causes are sometimes evoked to explain human action, but this use is, typically (in ordinary life, that is to say), deployed in unusual circumstances. Causes are invoked to explain how actions have an unusual hue, such that for example one might say of some one that he or she is forced to do something because of some cause – they are obliged to and hence ‘could not act normally – as they might choose to’. Or, to put it another way, causality is a phrase that points towards certain thresholds of comprehension, where the borders of what is understandable have been reached. Causes do not explain all action in other words; quite the reverse. Davidson got the wrong end of the stick with his claim that common sense made causes central to how action is accountable. Wittgenstein wanted to argue, in contrast, that ordinarily the ways in which human action is understood, described and accounted for in and through language (words) is so rich that causes are only sometimes a useful way of understanding or accounting for behavior; more often other better vocabularies of explanation are at hand and should be deployed.

Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s argued that when philosophy wants to investigate the relationship between human action and understanding, when it wants to answer the sorts fo questions Davidson was interested in, it should not turn to science. Science privileges reductionism and temporal sequencing as the cine qua non of all reasoning; this is apposite for certain tasks but not, in Wittgenstein’s view, when investigating meaningful human action. Investigations of that ought to be of a more philosophic kind. They should explore human nature by describing and investigating the diverse and huge topography of understanding encapsulated in and made possible through ordinary language – and this would  include the complex relationship humans have to time made visible in the sense of time oriented to and described in everyday life.

There is an especial claim here that I ought to mention since it will bring us back to the contemporary world and Facebook (in a moment, if not in the next few paragraphs!). This claim is that language and the contexts language describes are not limited but are enormously rich and diverse: the forms of life that people make, the topography of their societies, have not only developed dazzling diversity but have constantly and endlessly been re-crafted;  in small ways and in large: changes occur as people do new things and discover different ways of leveraging their aspirations. As they do so, so their sense of ‘being’ is pushed and the boundaries of language stretched into new meanings: this affects not only the causes of their actions, if there are such, but also their relationship to other elements of the way of being, including their management of and sense of being ‘in’ time, of the sense of actions as having a before and an after, of being sequenced or otherwise.

Resisting dogma and seeking to explore human experience

Let’s get back to Davidson. Though his article was viewed by many (especially in America) as putting an end to the Wittgensteinian revolution in philosophy, others since have kept the Wittgensteinian candle alight – though falteringly. In France, for example, in the early Seventies it seemed that Derrida was leading investigations into the ways in which language terms encapsulated not just the everyday routines of life but also the psychological experiences of existence, particularly as it was felt through and articulated by the reading of text: books, novels, philosophy, prose of all kinds (See his Of Grammatology of 1974). This seemed to point to a new territory for the kinds of inquiries Wittgenstein thought the philosophical imagination could apply to.

Unfortunately Derrida disappointed many on this count. One reason was that he seemed more interested in creating a cult of obscurity than in exploring human experience in clear, articulate ways. He still seems to suffer from this problem as evidenced, for example, in the contrast between the Preface he provides for Malibou’s book, The Future of Hegel (2005) and Malibou’s own writing in that book. Malibou’s writing, though difficult at times, suffers from none of the deliberate obscuratism of Derrida’s own Preface. The pain of those that had hoped Derrida might provide a robust creative leader for a resistance to the reemergence of dogma is manifest in for example in Anthony Kenny’s book series, A New History of Philosophy.

Be that as it may, other philosophers have sought to keep alive the flame of clarity and resistance to dogma that Wittgenstein momentary brought to philosophy. In Britain, for example, there is (the late) Oswald Hanfling; there is P.M.S. Hacker at Oxford and his now passed away colleague Baker; there are others – there is even a gang called the New Wittgensteinians. All these philosophers have been complimented by the Wittgensteinian tradition in sociological associated with the Manchester school of Ethnomethodology (See Ethnomethodology and the Human Sciences). In the USA there are equally many in sociology and philosophy:  I won’t list them all.

Time and Human Experience

But I do want to turn to a Wittgensteinian philosopher from Kentucky: Theo Schatzki. Recently he published a book with the rather awkward title, The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, (2011: Lexington Books). Here he argues that the way we understand ourselves is through a particular understanding of time: our acts have a purpose to them, they are teleological as he puts it, but the purpose is not predetermined: we act in ways that are essentially and profoundly indeterminate: we can change our minds, we falter, or we choose to do another thing.

When put as simply as this, his claims seem obvious and not really connected to Facebook. It might also appear that the suggestion that we have ‘indeterminacy’ (as he puts it), is unacceptable since it is evidently not the case that ‘anything can be’ – as seems to be implied in the phrase. Schatzki would be the first to admit, however, that we are bound by a complex weave or matrix of commitments, routines, expectations, our own abilities and inclinations and these order the things we do. Nevertheless, he would go on to insist that at the heart of human action indeterminacy is always there.

The main target of his argument is not with, say, causalists, though that is the way I am wanting to take it here and their implied temporal linearity. Rather his concern is to get a sense of how time and space are interjoined in human activity in a way that does not look like the simple space and time fit as a physicist might imagine it.

Schatzki’s  concern is to describe time and space in ways that fits the human experience. His argument is with wrong theories of time and human action. So, for example, he argues that whereas there is such a thing as linear or clock time, the sense of time constitutive of experience in everyday life is, in contrast, different because it makes out the present to have a particular order to it that includes the past and the future. The distinction between the past, the present and the future, so obvious and clear with linear time, is somewhat distracting if you are trying to understand this sense of time (time as it is lived), he argues.

It can be put this way: the order of time in everyday life isn’t best thought of as linear, as an action being the output or consequence of prior events, as if time were merely a series of events in a cause-like order. Rather, things often seem to turn out as if they naturally follow on from prior events but, in the actual moment when a person is undertaking an act, a person is aware that they might choose to do something in some other way, i.e., do it differently. Of course these choices are made given the circumstantial constraints that have to be navigated through and taken heed of there and then. Nevertheless, though a person is constrained by habits, rules, regulations and such like, a person is always confronted with the possibility that what happens next may take various forms.

Consequently, the experience of living entails experiencing how the past constitutes threads that exist in the present and lead to the future. There are numerous of these at any moment or juncture, framed by the diverse things that we are about, our personal affairs, our business activities, our practical tasks, each of which constitutes its own set of frames or threads. Each of these unfold in various ways, sometimes with the past imposing itself upon us and at the other times the present (or the future) imposing itself in different ways. In some cases the past might still excites us, for example, just as what might happen in the future might excite us prospectively, in another case.

All this seems a long way from Facebook. But Schatzki goes on to say that, as a result of this, this complex organization of how time is for the human,  that people therefore sometimes feels – indeed often feel – as if they are rushed headlong into things, as if these threads or trajectories impose themselves on people in ways they cannot resist. ‘One cannot stop’, one can hear them say.

Poetry and time

I mention this now not merely as a way of reflecting on my reading but to open up a discussion about the sense of nowness that many feel is too constraining when the use Facebook.

One of the French philosophers of the quotidian who emerged somewhat in the wake of the disappointment of Derrida, was Lefebvre. Amongst his books is rhythmanalysis (2004). Just as Schatzki and others mentioned above, he argued that experience is best thought of as a set of interlinked threads or practices and processes that tie the past and the future in the present moment. But he also said that there are certain social practices that allow people to stop and pause and grasp the rush of nowness in a clear view. Certain art forms did this, he proposed, like poetry. With poetry the tempo of experience is paused, albeit fleetingly, so that it can be seen in clear light and calmly, with no afflicting sense of the past or the future rushing headlong. In a sense, poetry (and certain other forms) allow the sense of time to stop, to pause.

It seems to me that one can interpret the complaints we are hearing about Facebook as being ‘too now’ in just these terms. One could say that users of Facebook recognize that there is no poetic moment available in the system. Nor have they been able to define a social practice for themselves that lets them make that ‘pause’. With Facebook they cannot stop, ever; there is no pause. There is no poetic mechanics to allow it.

We are not alone in coming to these findings. Other researchers are finding the same. This is what Sosik, Zhao & Cosley argue in their “See Friendship, Sort of” paper of 2011, for example. They report that new functions developed by Facebook, like ‘timelines’, make the situation of feeling stuck in ‘nowness’ worse: timelines simply presents the past as a literal series of sequential events that lead to ‘now’. If one comments on one of these things from that past, that comment is not treated as having a complex relationship to the past, the present and-or the future, as a delicate part of a complex timespace matrix that one is working through, but as something that can only be to do with the present: the past becomes NOW. This is evidenced by the fact that buddies on Facebook remark on those comments by saying things like: ‘Oh why are you mentioning that? What has that got to do with what we are doing now?’, etc.

Thus the time – human time – is corrupted by Facebook (and functions like timelines) in a way that destroys the patterned ways that time is experienced. Facebook users find the technology makes the past subservient to, and constitutive of a present in a way that is so crude it ends up making everything become just ‘now’, just the present. This present is feeble, without rich temporal colour: no subtle looking back at the present, looking at the past from the future, looking at the present from the past. And because of this, Facebook somehow tyrannizes its users. Facebook freaks people out: ‘it’s too like now’.

References

Davidson, D. (1963) Actions, Reasons, and Causes’ in Davidson, Action & Events, OUP, 1980: 3-20

Derrida, J. (1995) Preface, in Malabou, 2005, op cit, ppvii-xlix. Harper, R. (1997)  Inside the IMF: An Ethnography of Documents, Technology, and Organizational Action, Academic Press, Inc. Orlando, FL, USA.

Lefebrve, H. (2004) rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life, (Trans S,. Elden & G. Moore), London Verso Books. Derrida, J. (1974) Of Grammatology (Trans G. Spivak) The John Hopkins University Press, USA.

Malabou, C. (2005) The Future of Hegel: Plasticity, Temporality and Dialectic, Routledge, (first published in French in 1995).

Schatzki, T. (2011) The Timespace of Human Activity: on performance, society, and history as indeterminate teleological events, Lexington Books, Maryland.

Sosik, V.S., Zhao, X. & & Cosley, D. (2011) See Friendship, Sort of: How Conversation and Digital Traces support Reflection on Friendships, in Proceedings of CSCW 2011: ACM Press, Seattle: pp1145-1154.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.