Seeing Quickly: reasoning in the age of Trump

26 Nov

President Trump’s behaviour is often a lightning rod for contemporary issues. Take the altercation between him and the CNN reporter Jim Acosta. There is one video going the rounds on social media that shows Acosta pushing the Whitehouse intern who seeks to remove the roving microphone he is holding; he resists her efforts. This video suggests that Acosta is, indeed, bad mannered and ‘horrible’, as Trump puts it; ‘Look at how he treats an intern!’ Democrats are saying that this video is ‘false’, based on cut segments replayed in sequence to exaggerate Acosta’s bodily actions. One can readily believe it. One only has to think of the reputation of the AltRight crowd.  But, just as that faction in American politics seems to falsify with video, think of how the left does it too. Recall the evisceration of Prime Minister May at the last general election in the UK, for example. Then the so-called Cornbynistas devised video ‘memes’ that showed Mrs May saying the same words again and again like a malfunctioning robot. These too were based on splices of videoed action cut together to create a false image.

In short, truth seems to go out the door with the affordances of digital video.

Should we no longer trust video? If not, then what do we trust? Hasn’t video become the lingua franca of our times? Certainly, news reports are replete with video, with tales from the field not being written but shown; our social media feeds are populated by video too.

It is not so much that one wants video, though. It seems to me, and this is what this blog is about, that we all want to see. Seeing seems more important, better than other modes of understanding – whatever they might be (reading, listening, and so on).

Why has seeing come to have this status? Do we presuppose that what one sees should be given more credibility than, say, what one reads? Do things have to be seen if they are to be taken as truth? If this is the case, it begs questions about who sees, what they see and who is us doing the seeing for us.

Consider journalists: one might say that they act as our seeing agents; they are representative of our eyes. Given this, is it better that they capture what they see with video, rather than interpret what they see with words? Do the resulting videos stand as proxy for our own line of sight, a line of sight we would have if we were there instead of them? As I say, our news services do seem replete with video, not with written analysis.

Perhaps this is how journalism is being shaped at the current time. If this is so, then what does it say about such things as our justice system? Here, too, people act as our representatives: judges act on the public’s behalf. Are they, likewise, shifting their practices to make seeing increasingly central to the judgments?

Judges do look at the visual, that is for sure; but it seems to me that their looking has some subtleties that we can readily acknowledge make it different from our own ways of seeing. Judges don’t simply look, they look and they listen to what a witness says about what something looks like and juxtapose this account against other witness’s accounts. A judge puts these accounts alongside other sources of information. These may including other visual materials but also documentary phenomena, such as traces of action stored in computer systems – records of bank transactions, say, written documents too. Visual witnessing is only part of what judges judge on. Judges subsume questions of seeing into questions of evidence and its heterogeneity – where seeing is only one mode of truth.

So, should we approach the farrago over Trump’s altercation with the CNN reporter as nothing more than an example of ‘troubles with seeing’ when all we have is a certain type of seeing – it’s the gaze enabled by the media, by click-thru’s on social media. It is not seeing in the general that is at issue, but specific social practices.

Perhaps. But surely there is a deeper question here bound up with how easy it is, with digital tools, to ‘crop’, ‘highlight’, ‘remove’, ‘insert’ and ‘recast’ the narrative arc of some ‘seen event’ and, given this, the power of the visual as a mode of information gathering. The visual is powerful, despite being easy to falsify.  The visual can be said to anchor everyday veracity, for example. A judge treats the visual differently because he/she is not in the everyday mode. Indeed, many psychologists would say that what a person sees in everyday life functions more deeply in the processing of consciousness than, say, ideas or thoughts; in this view (no pun intended) to see does have precedence in questions of knowledge. In my own field, human computer interaction, this psychological view is often used to justify the merits of visual memories and recall enabled by digital tools. One consequence of these efforts is that those who have less interest in the cognitive but more in technology and its consequences, such as media studies theorists, are coming to suggest that the ‘visual’ is measure of what we have become. The digital is making us visual, they say.

Yet these arguments from psychology and media studies miss something that, I think, is more important still. When it comes to the visual, to the use of video, it is not the ease with which what can be seen can be altered and made false that is at issue, it is the efficacy of conveying messages and eliciting responses quickly that is. What one should note about our current world is not that falsification is now more commonplace and easily achieved with video. It is not truth that is threatened by making visual concerns the anchor of our knowledge. It is, rather, a question of the pace of our judgements. We see and judge at a glance and do all this quickly; that is the point. We do not see and ask for more information, we do not think slowly. In this regard, the use of video in debates about politics reflects a desire for quick responses, not questions of objectivity and truth. We want quick actions in politics, not slow, ponderous choice making. Politicians must act, we can hear ourselves say, however compromised their choices as a result.

One might add that it is not just video that affords this rapidity. Think of Trump’s tweets. Whether they are true or not doesn’t matter, it’s the affect they have that does, and the affect is instant, unreflective, accusatory. They are sent quickly, read quickly, and have their affect quickly. It would appear that they are created quickly too.

And that is the point. We are all like Trump now. We might not tweet but we make judgements with a glance; we see, we believe; we judge instantly. It’s not the technologies that are undermining questions of truth, but the tempo of our thinking. And it is not just politicians who are thinking quickly. It is all of us.

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Enchantment with Computer Reason

4 Aug

Today, when computer systems are so ubiquitous and therefore mundane, so immensely powerful but yet taken for granted, how do programmers motivate themselves? How do they get out of bed in the mornings and say, “Yep! I can’t wait to get on the keyboard!”

There was a time when this motivation seemed easy to explain. Think of Sherry Turkle’s book, The Second Self. There she described how exciting it was to get a machine to ‘act’ in accord with one’s own instructions. She said that getting one’s thoughts onto a screen and for those thoughts to get the machine to function like one’s second self was magical, something that really motivated you. But her book was written when the machines on the desk being one’s second self were called microcomputers, not personal computers. That gives an idea of how long ago that excitement was. So today – what enchants coders?

I do think it is enchantment that gets the coder out of bed but I think this is a quite different kind from that which Turkle described. Indeed it is almost reverse, one might say. In my view, many coders today find their enchantment in Machine Learning. They are enchanted because machine learning makes computers act in ways that they, the coder, cannot understand. It is not their reasoning writ large on the performance of the machine that excites them or provokes a sense of wonder; it is, on the contrary, how the machine works despite them that is.

The aspect of computer programming I am thinking of is a part of machine learning that is sometimes called Deep Learning. This is part of a broader family of methods based on the notion that programmes themselves can, as it were, ‘learn’ how to correctly represent data and thus act on that data. In the approach I am thinking of, no human is required to label data as part of some training set. Rather, the machine or rather the application somehow ‘uncovers’ categories and features in the data (about the world, say) and then acts accordingly.

What comes to mind, particularly, are computer vision systems, where certain programmes are able to identify (to ‘see’, as it were) objects not merely as a function of ‘unsupervised learning’, a technique whereby the programmes come to recognise objects without the aid of a human expert, for such techniques presuppose that what the system finds accords with what the human programmer can see too – the machine in this sense is only copying what the human can do, though doing this autonomously. In contrast, these new systems are identifying objects – patterns, shapes, phenomena in the visual field – that no human could see. They are, if you like, doing something beyond what the human can do.

As it happens, and in many instances, various advanced computer vision processing applications have been doing this for some time – though without the fanfare that has erupted recently.

Good examples of what such programmes can do can be found in the work of, for example, Graham Budgett, an artist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Here, the images he produces, his art if you like, are to be seen through a browser. These images keep iterating and changing themselves as you look. They do so as a function of the algorithms that make the images you see a transitory output. That is to say, these algorithms constantly reinterpret the objects, the shapes, the forms, the colours, that Budgett provides for them in the first place. The algorithms present these as the first thing one sees. But then they start interpreting and reinterpreting these shapes, colours, forms. In each cycle of interpretation, the code starts with a same initial set of objects (whatever they might be), and these are processed and interpreted results in infinitely new forms every time the code (or the application) is run. The code is probalistic, not deterministic, and so comes up with different interpretations each time it parses.

In a sense on might say that the art here – the painting if you prefer but no paintbrushes are involved, only a keyboard and mouse – is being done by code. What the artist does, in this case Budgett, is select the machine learning algorithms as if they were paints for the palette. The ‘art’ comes to be in how the code interacts with its own output; thus Budgett has created art that performs without his controlling hand.

Though his examples are only of pictorial art, in important respects the pictures are showing something quite radical. The applications producing these pictures are not articulating human knowledge, knowledge about shapes and objects in the world. Rather, they are creating, through the application’s interpretation, new knowledge, new forms and shapes. These are the dynamic output from algorithms. In these respects, the Turing Test has been passed in radically impressive way since computing is not so much mimicking human intelligence, as it is doing something people cannot do – making thing with a new kind of intelligence.

This is significant. If this is the enchantment that coders are finding today, then, this is fundamentally different to the kind described by Turkle in Second Self. If, then, the delight she described was in getting a machine to act according to a coder’s own reasons, now the delight that coders feel is in getting machines to act in terms of reasons that the machine produces. The enchantment is no longer in the self, in how one gets a machine to act as a mirror of one’s own thoughts; it is in how some application can reason autonomously. It is as if the coders want the applications they code to do something more than the coders can imagine themselves.

Now for many coders this seems to be an enchanting moment. Here at last is a glimpse of what they have been seeking since the term ‘AI’ was first made common currency after the Dartmouth Conference where the term was first coined in 1956.

The trick, though, is that the applications that are currently being sought are ones that seem to have reasons that people don’t have, that people couldn’t have, that are more than human in their intelligence. And here it is not simply that computers can process at vast speed, that they are simply better calculators; on the contrary, the coders think that the applications they are producing reason in ways that is beyond human reason.

This is somehow beyond what Turing imagined. Given the deity like status this mathematician has in the pantheon of computer science, this is presumably enormously exciting to the coder. No wonder they are so keen to get out of bed. It’s not what they do that excites them, its what their applications will do.

The ‘new A.I.’ and the future of paper: a strange juxtaposition

27 May

Fifteen years ago, it was imagined that the emergence of personal computers, network systems and the World Wide Web would totally transform work and home. The experiences people have in these settings would become completely digital. At work, paper would cease to be important in messaging or reading, with documents of all kinds being created, exchanged and stored online. The location of work would be transformed as well, with digital connections allowing business to be done anywhere (and indeed anytime). Home life would be revolutionised, with news and lifestyle information no longer being delivered in paper form, in newspapers and magazines say, but online, via the PC. Where people would shop would alter, too, with people using e-commerce to purchase from the couch instead of, say, on the high street or in a shopping centre.

In the past three or four years, further technological change has occurred. The emergence of cloud-based infrastructures has led to Big Data, and this, combined with the new machine intelligence, has led to user data analytics that are allowing some to claim that what people want can be predicted to a fine degree. Some have proposed that this combination will transform the relationship between people and technology. Employment levels will be reduced as intelligent machines move from the factory to the office and replace important decision-making professionals; machines will become experts in work life. As regards the home, data analytics will allow businesses and online providers to deliver content and marketing materials precisely when the consumer needs them. Search engines will not wait for a command, but will deliver what they predict their user seeks. What people want, when they want it, and how to elicit this through marketing, will be understood by intelligent systems interrogating vast sets of data. In effect, the choices people make either in the home and in the workplace will be predictable; choice will be tamed by technology.

On the face of it, these trends would appear to suggest that the use of paper for various purposes will inevitably decline and the digital will take over. Yet, and at just a common sense level, this is evidently not happening in any straight-forward or linear way. To take some examples: the much-hyped arrival of the e-book which some said would lead to the eradication of paper textbooks and novels, seems to have stalled (1). In a similar vein, although sales of paper-based magazines have shown some decline, they have not been replaced by e-content (2). Other research, this time looking at attitudes, suggests that people are returning to a more favourable view about paper as a marketing medium (3). In the first two examples, the issues are related to the ways paper gets used, its ‘interactional properties’ as it were, in the third, it has to do with the changing landscape of perceptions. Paper no longer evokes a dying medium; on the contrary, it has a positive place in people’s attitudes towards how they conduct their affairs at home and work.

These examples make it clear that, just as the relations between paper and digital have been complex and have evolved in diverse ways, so they are likely to continue evolving in equally complex and divergent ways. The relationship between paper and the digital needs more than common sense or brief research studies. This ecology needs systematic research; indeed, a science of how that ecology functions and how it will evolve.

Research of this kind has certainly been done in some respects. The impact of, for example, the first of these transformations, deriving from networked systems, PCs and the Web, has been shown to be not as predicted and the reasons for this explained scientifically. Research reported in, as a case in point, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Sellen & Harper, 2002), showed that paper would continue to have a role in the work setting. Through extensive observational data and experimental examinations, this study demonstrated that the affordances of paper could not be substituted by digital alternatives of the time. For certain tasks, particularly related to information analysis and comprehension, for what one might gloss as essentially human processes of decision-making, using paper was more effective; it enabled people to ‘interact with’ information in ways that best suited the mechanics of their cognition.

Nevertheless, this and other research also showed that digital technologies were altering workplaces in important ways, combining with paper to create new opportunities for information gathering and use, altering the landscape of decision-making as it did so. Networks provided more information to people, enabled widespread transmission and almost infinite storage. This, in turn, altered the role of reports and documents as they came to articulate greater amounts of information; less attention being given to particularities and more to breadth, to navigation. New forms of documents came to emerge that linked information resources on the Web to internal organizational archives. Shared repositories of information in applications like, for example, Microsoft Sharepoint, came to reflect this alteration. Meanwhile, paper continued to have a role in comprehension and document provision, attested to albeit crudely in the increasing volumes of office papers supplied (4).

Early research in home settings, reported in collections like Inside the Smart Home (Harper, Ed. 2003) explained why paper would persist in the home for reasons similar to those applicable to the workplace. This research highlighted also how technologies were creating changes in the patterns of people’s domestic activities, particularly to do with the experiential form of their decision-making. For example, and while it was agreed that search engines and e-commerce would open up when and how people shopped, research made it clear that this would not result in substituting traditional forms of consumption, on the high street, say. Rather, browsing with a search engine would come to extend the footprint of shopping to include both the high street and the couch. As a result, where people chose, to use a shorthand for consumption practices, would broaden. As it did so, there would be a greater role for paper. More particularly, as the couch became part of the shopping domain, so ways of conveying information in ways appropriate to the leisurely manners of the couch (and the domestic setting more generally) would become more important. Paper brochures and magazines were predicted to have an increasing role because of this. Recent investigations seem to confirm this research, certainly if this is to be measured in terms of gross print volumes. This view has been given further weight by attitudinal findings and small-scale observational evidence. This latter research has mostly been undertaken by the marketing industry, however, and this brings into doubt matters of objectivity. The evidence might be right, but the authority is not scientific.

Whilst studies of the first of these revolutions were comprehensive, far less has been invested in examinations of the new A.I. either by scientific investigators or the industries that might be affected by the new data analytics. With regard to the workplace, some initial research has focused on how machine intelligence might replace the professional in decision-making processes (see for instance, Frey, et al, The Future of Employment, 2013). This substitution will result in a reduction in the numbers of such staff a company might have overall. As a byproduct, there will also be a reduction in the need of paper given that it supports the cognitive processes of these decision-makers. However, this research has not, in any detail, examined whether there are variations in decision-making that will constrain the potential impact of new systems. In some domains these new systems may well replace human decision makers since the choices being made are well suited to probabilistic solutions; in other cases less so. Besides, there is also a lack of evidence about the state of the technology, with ease of use and cost being taken for granted, for example. One particular problem is making intelligent machines intelligible to the user. This is not a simple matter.

More generally, however, the state of research about the ‘new A.I.’ echoes the kinds of excited but often un-evidenced claims that prompted the research reported in The Myth of the Paperless Office. Many of these claims are discussed in Harper et al’s critical assessment of decision-making theories in their book Choice (2016). As they show, many of these claims ignore important complicating factors that will reduce the potential impact of these technologies, or at least make their role less than clear-cut. For example, many of the claims assume that professional decision-making is individual work whereas in the workplace most decisions are the output of joint and co-operative activity. Because of this the new systems may not have the impact some expect.

The role of new predictive technologies in the home has been investigated somewhat more comprehensively, though the concern here has been more to show how these technologies alter the kinds of experiences people have and less on how the new A.I. is making choices for them. For example, considerable change has occurred in the games space with a range of new technologies being used to support camera-based interaction – this has created new experiences for people. That new machine learning techniques do this is largely invisible to the user. Meanwhile, a similar set of techniques have had a much more demonstrative role in helping players find game partners on line. However, attempts to leverage these new techniques to support human decision making elsewhere in the home, with regard to cooking, for instance, or in the management and purchasing of domestic provisions, food, cleaning materials and so on, have been less successful. For a variety of reasons, people prefer to cook as they see fit and not with automated systems; similarly, they prefer to manage their own cupboards and fridges even if this means they sometimes end up eating ‘the same old thing’.

Nevertheless, and in balance, home life has been altered and this is reflected in the titles of books on that subject matter – homes are no longer being thought of as smart with technologies taking over important decision-making activities. Instead, homes and their occupants are connected (Harper, Ed. 2011; also Neustaedter, et al, Eds, 2013). Meanwhile, the impact this move toward the connected home will have on the role of paper and the intersection of paper and digital has only been sketched. What is clear, though, is that just as it is with the workplace, the evolution of paper and digital in the home setting will require careful examination; it will not be straightforward to understand the combinations of motivations, attitudes and the ‘affordances’ of digital and paper media that will shape the future. Scientific investigation into the home is required just as much as it is with regard to the workplace.

 

References: Papers and articles

Frey, C.B. Osborne, M.A (2013), The Future of Employment: How susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? Oxford Martin Institute, Oxford.

The Royal Mail, (2015), The Private Life of Mail.

Harper, R. (2010), Texture: Human Expression in the Age of Communications Overload, MIT Press, London and Boston

Harper, R. (Ed) (2003), Inside the Smart Home: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the design and shaping of domestic computing, Springer Verlag, Godalming and Heidleburg.

Harper, R. (Ed) (2011), The Connected Home, Springer, London.

Harper, R., Randall, D. & Sharrock, W., ( 2016) Choice: The science of reason in the 21st Century: a critical assessment, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Neustaedter, C. Harrison, S. & Sellen, Eds, (2013) Connecting Families, Springer, London.

Sellen, A. & Harper, R. (2002). The Myth of the Paperless Office, MIT Press, Boston, Mass.

 

Footnotes to Web references

1) http://authorearnings.com/report/print-vs-digital-report/

2) http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/aug/14/uk-consumer-magazines-print-sales-2014).

3) http://www.printweek.com/print-week/feature/1156257/alpha-mail-print-is-retaking-ground-in-the-marketing-mix?utm_content=&utm_campaign=070316PWPrintBuying&utm_source=PrintWeek&utm_medium=adestra_email&utm_term=http://www.printweek.com/print-week/feature/1156257/alpha-mail-print-is-retaking-ground-in-the-marketing-mix

4) http://www.computerworld.com/article/2511279/computer-hardware/business-paper-use-remains-high.html

Why Skype?

2 Apr

Why does someone ‘Skype’? – assuming, of course, that one will allow a noun to be used as a verb. Is it merely to see another? Is there some special value in seeing? Is seeing better, say, than writing, instant messaging, texting? ‘Skyping’ needs to be understood, it seems to me, in terms of the reasons people have for such communications. This seems obvious – a truism. But what are those reasons? How many are there? What does it mean to say that people have reasons? Does one always need a reason to Skype? Surely some human relationships are such that no reasons are needed to call. One Skypes ‘just because’.

This playful preamble sets up the purpose of this blog. It proposes that there are two basic ways of treating acts of communication between people. One view, grossly speaking, looks at those acts in terms of theoretical constructs devised by commentators external to those acts; the observer’s view if you like. A whole plethora of such theories can be noted – from Media Theory approaches right the way through to, let us say, Speech Act Theory. All, in various ways, look at what people do when they communicate through an external theoretical lens. This approach has all sorts of merits, not least of which is its fecundity: one could write book after book attempting to summarise all the currently fashionable theories accounting for communication, for example, and doing so would attest to that very fertility. (Indeed lots of books, some of which I discuss below).

The other approach, much less often deployed, ignores ‘external theory’ and examines, instead, what those in acts of communication themselves do that gives those acts of communication the shape and form they have. Here too there will be found things that look like ‘theoretical orientations’, concepts and interpretative tools as well as much more prosaic ‘maxims of conduct’ but these are participant’s own theories, tools and concepts, not those of the observer. This is the act of communicating from within. It is, for what of an academic sounding phrase, the endogenous that this second view examines.

For those familiar with the first view, this second perspective can make them very ill at ease – it can often seem that this second view privileges lay theorising as much as expert theorising; it appears, in their understanding, to place science alongside ‘common sense’, the parochial with the widespread, the objective.  Those who are more familiar with this second view know, however, that such a concern is egregious, and that the purpose of looking at how people themselves reason is not to contrast that with some other presumed order of reason – a scientific one say. The purpose is simply to gather empirical evidence about how the world works given that that world is evidently accomplished by those who live in it – and they are not in a sense expert in anything other than in their own doings.

This summary is obviously simple, and the contrast necessarily elides important distinctions. But that said, this second view can be said to be, broadly speaking, the view of Harold Garfinkel, as espoused in his seminal book, Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). This view, in turn, has echoes in or, rather, has echoes of, the analytical philosophy of Wittgenstein, particularly his Philosophical Investigations (1958), and the attempts to bring a social scientific application of his views by, for example, Peter Winch in The Idea of a Social Science (originally 1958).

Be that as it may, what I am interested in is exploring the ordinary ways that ordinary people do Skype. Presumably, and picking up the point from the first paragraph, what one will find, if one does look, is that there is some logic behind this use of Skype – this ordinariness. One imagines too that the ‘reasons for Skyping’ will be, somehow, incarnate in what is being sought for in Skyping – something about the intentions of those involved, the relationships articulated and so forth, will be articulated. These concerns may be part of the set of reasons that help describe and explain the actions in question – the choice to make a call, the topics selected, the things looked at. One imagines as part of this, as well, that concerns to do with rights to look (at another) will be found in the acts themselves. All this and more will make up the why of Skyping.

Evidence

Of course, this is all conjecture; one is imagining there is a why here or a set of whys – although one can hardly claim to be totally unfamiliar with the topic. After all, who hasn’t Skyped sometime or other? The real question is what evidence has been brought to the about this practice, evidence, losely speaking of a scientific kind. I am thinking about what can one say ‘evidentially’ about what people do do in and through Skype?

One of the first things one might say about the evidence is that it seems a bit curious. There are, for example, some remarkable statistics and figures about Skype. It is often noted that Skype is used for approximately 35% of the calls that small business make, for example. Surveys by Skype itself suggest that it is also known and used by virtually everybody, as indeed I have just remarked. It would appear that Skype is then part of normal life, part of the fabric of living in much the same way that mobile phones are, tablets and PCs. It is commonplace. The name of the product has now even become eponymous with the use of any and all video connections – running Skype or otherwise (there are now numerous competing technologies). We live inside a world in which Skyping is part of our vocabulary. As Xerox came to be verb, so too Skyping, as I noted at the outset. And yet despite this, there is no large literature on Skyping, on the connections that Skype enables and sustains. This is one of the reasons why I say the evidence is curious.

That this is so is all the more startling given how much research – and how many books – were written reporting the widespread adoption of a prior communications technology that became equally ubiquitous some years ago. Katz’s Magic in the Air (2006) was published about the same time as some of my own books, Wireless World (2002) and Inside Text (2006). How mobile phones were altering the fabric of being in touch was a considerable scholarly concern at that time. And, yet, today, when Skype is similarly ubiquitous, no such equivalents are to be seen – as far as I am aware, there are hardly any books on Skype and everyday life. The recent publication of Miller and Sinanan’s Webcam (2014) comes close to  the topic,  and it is the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps there is a reason for this, and this might have to do with what Skype affords. Whereas the mobile altered the mechanics of availability in ways that some said altered the socio-spatial geometries of the world (see for example Massey’s For Space, 2005), Skype seems to let people communicate as they would do ordinarily, naturally, without the corrupting intermediation of technology. After all, it lets people see those they are talking with. One of the catch phrases of my own company, even if it is infelicitous, says it all: natural interaction. Is it in this sense that Skype is uninteresting – because it’s not strange; being normal, the natural way of communicating, albeit over distance?

It is not entirely clear. Whatever the reason for the apparent dearth of research this doesn’t mean that Skype isn’t addressed in the literature. It is, but when Skype is considered it is treated as an element, and often only a minor one at that.  Madianou and Miller’s Migration and New Media (2012) is one such inquiry. (Miller and Sinanan’s Webcam offers a more sympathetic interest in the participant’s experiences and  so is closer to the view I propose,  but is constrained by its method: it doesn’t report the actualities of Skyping, but interviews about Skype – this produces different sorts of insights). Here we learn how contemporary international – or transnational – employment migration trends are resulting in many families finding that ‘Mum’ works and lives far from home – abroad no less. This is particularly so for Filipino families, the book’s chosen community and culture, where Madianou and Miller show how Skype is used by mothers working in London (and elsewhere, though London is the primary site) to keep in touch with their families back in the archipelago. The book explains that these connections are highly sought after – desired if you will – because these mothers are remote from family members that are often quite young. It’s these mothers’ kids who are being looked after by grandparents and aunts. Madianou and Miller explain that it is via Skype that the young children in question can come to recognise what their mother looks like; Mum thus comes to be more than a mere idea conveyed in the written word or through the sound of speech on a phone. Seeing Mum via Skype lets Mums be recognised when they come home, as they walk out of the airport gates into the arms of children who no longer need prompting by aunts who in the past might have had to say ‘there she is’ – as if the lady in question were a stranger. Mothers find they relish this recognition: they delight in it. It negates the grief of not been recognised at all.

Yet it is perhaps in this respect that Skype is doing something obvious yet something that it is not best treated as ‘natural’, and hence worth little commentary as I suggest. For it seems, according to Madianou and Miller’s evidence, that Skype gives greater importance to the visual in social relations. Many prior communications emphasised the auditory and the textual. The valence of Skype, of Skyping (certainly in in the context Madianou and Miller report), is not merely that seeing allows recognition, it is rather that it brings an erotic element to family connections. By erotic I mean a concern in this regard for the sensual aspects of the body and all that ensues: through Skyping, mothers can feel the adoring gaze of their loved ones; they can delight in knowing that the one they cuddle at the airport has not been told to cuddle but does so since they see ‘It is Mum!’

This echoes the work of Peters who argues, in Speaking into the Air (1999), that the widespread prevalence of vision-delivering tools in contemporary communication technology is making the body more important than the mind when people seek to communicate. It is shifting expectations and the experiences that people are delighting in. Seeing has become part of the requisite of the modern form of life, where distributed, fragmenting families solidify themselves not through articulating what they think, but by letting each other recognise each other’s shape, their form, their body. This is altering the connection between place and emotion and the visual. To see Mum is the sought for value; on contrast, to say, receive a letter lets one understand Mum’s subjectivity – what Mum thinks and feels ‘inside’. This is different.  Indeed one could suggest that this contrast is even larger than this: whereas once a letter would be treated by the recipient as a gift of sorts, today the relationship between sender and recipient, absent and present person, is altered. It is recognising someone on their return after a long absence that is the gift that is sought for. To see is the mechanism that allows recognition; we become our pictures (or at least as we are seen through Skype’s codecs), not our thoughts or inner reflections, our looks become us, not our words.

What to say, what to see

Yet if this is so, what is the form of action in and through a Skype call? What is the gaze that seems so vital to mother’s made of, how is it constituted? How do people separated by distance come to manage the problem of ‘looks’, a name for what it might be that is recognised when one see’s another? How does one Skype so as to learn what another looks like? Migration and New Media doesn’t answer these questions – detailed as they are, obvious though they might be. This is not a fault in the book since Skype is not really the concern, it’s what its use points to that is. And that is essentially to do with contemporary anthropological theory: abstract notions of family, and relatedly, abstracted notions of obligation and absence and their connection to ‘capitalism’.

I should say again, I am not being critical of such an approaches – one that delves into empirical matters to service theoretical topics. I am saying there is another way of examining what happens in and through Skype where the burdens of theory are not so great or invasive. One might add that though this other approach might not encumbered by theory, what it uncovers might nevertheless be rich and evocative, suggestive, in the empirical shape of the material uncovered, the complexities of modern lives where the work of being in touch its experiential consequences so profound. It may also supplement and even echo some of the more theory-driven research.

There are now beginning to appear some papers that take the view I am interested in and indeed some of these do provide a neat resonance with studies such as Madianou’s and Miller. These studies have looked at, for example, the opening sequences of Skype communications, others at what happens within them, whether this relates to greetings and introductions or topics and agitations, even problems with the technology – ‘troubles  talk’ in the encompassing sense.

Take Sunakawa and Bono’s paper on greetings in Skype that was presented at the Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship conference here at MSR in the summer of 2014. Though one would think that Skype connections would begin with a summons answer sequence – one standard format of openings in face to face conversation – this research shows that in practice many Skype calls are part of already underway communications. Skype calls don’t start talk, they are part of ongoing tele-mediated acts; part of talk that is ongoing not in some gross sense – as in ‘I am always in contact‘ – but in real, adjacent turn-taking that happens to be across different technological platforms. In the families Sunakawa and Bono studied, SMS, instant messaging and Facebook postings are used to co-ordinate Skype calls right up to the time that Skyping commences.

To see, in this context, is to see at the right time. This does not mean merely and only when the technology is set up to do so, when the Skype clients have been switched on and connections made to the Internet and so forth. Rather they commence when the parties themselves are ready to be seen and to see. This means, and this evokes Madianou and Miler’s book, when the participants have, say, the kids at hand and hence ‘ready to pick up and show’, or when new clothes and jewellery are nearby so that these same kids can pick up and show these to the remote party. These items may be gifts that they have received from the remote other – their Mum say. It’s not that they have them that is the issue, it is showing them that is. This is why Sunakawa and Bono argue that Skype is like theatre; for, like actors, users of Skype require some warming up and preparatory work, but here the actors and the audience are as one, the crucial thing is to get them all ready for the performance itself.

Licoppe and Morel, at the same conference, go even further and show how these openings and greetings becoming multi-staged. They consist not just of the pre-call arrangements, on SMS, Facebook or whatever, but then, once a Skype connection is made, an initial greeting, when a call starts, and then a further, subsequent greeting when everyone is arranged so as to do what the participants themselves sometimes call a ‘proper greeting’ – as in ‘We are all here now, say hello everyone!’.  Getting to a place where the body of those concerned when Skype connections are sought and undertaken requires, then, lots of work and joint moral commitment, an interactional order between both parties, caller and receiver.

Part of this work, if work it is, entails not only getting things ready to see, but how to deal with opportunities for greetings that are serendipitous, or at least sometimes staged so as that they seem to be. For Licoppe and Morel not only report on the multi-staged form of openings (see also Rilieu, 2014), they also report on what they call greetings which are massively bound up with the seeing of others, when it is the actual act of seeing that becomes the salient aspect of the greeting. As it happens the French have a word for this: they are called coucou moments. Coucou is a vernacular for saying ‘See you’ when seeing is very much the thing being alluded to – when someone sees a friend on the other side of the metro station, say, when someone eventually finds a person in a busy public place even though they have been talking with them on the phone as they seek them out. Coucou is like a word that one would use in the family game of hide and seek at that moment when someone is found – though of course, there is no English vernacular for it – ‘found you!’ hardly does it.

In their studies of Skyping, Licoppe and Morel find that coucouing tends to take over the orientation of users. People make a point of not being seen at the very start of a Skype call, for example, only to give greater gravity, more importance and fun to the actual moment when they are seen, somewhat after the commencement of the connection – this is the coucou moment. When a coucou has been done, delayed or otherwise, Licoppe and Morel show that participants talk about it. People note such things as what might have been peculiar about the seeing in question (‘oh you look fat’ was one of the surprisingly unendearing phrases that one Parisien said to another she had just coucoued in Licoppe and Morel’s data). When such a moment is reached prematurely it creates fluster and giggles; when it is deliberately done for a subsequent time (somehow, but I leave the reader to imagine how), it becomes a focal point, a topic itself, like the thread of double entendres in jokey conversations, a coucou leading to another in an flush of ‘seeings’. Licoppe and Morel also report those coucou moments that are experienced not as constructed by the participants but as conjured by the ineffable effects that poor quality data volumes and the inefficiency of Skype codecs produce. Here the coucou word is used to describe the disappearing of the remote other, a disappearing soon followed by a reappearing – as if callers are digital ghosts that suddenly appear and vanish in the world as seen on the screen, a world that is evidently different from the world as is.

What one finds, if one examines Skyping then, is not merely that ‘looks’ are things that can be learnt through Skyping, that how another is to be recognised can be as it were, taught. What one finds is that the skill that gets glossed as the ability to recognise another is actually subordinate to the work entailed in Skype user’s capacity to engage in jointly produced orientations to physical display, ones that are not about just their own faces and bodies, about looks so to speak, but include any combination of faces and bodies and other real objects – presents and ornaments, cats and dogs, grandmothers and grandchildren. Much more is seen than merely looks in Skype. At the same time, seeing within Skype is bound up with the organised, sequential patterning of these acts of joint looking, acts that sometimes repeat themselves, and which sometimes allow new components to appear in the lookings – new views of the bodies in question, new arrivals who coucou out of the blue, so to speak.

Conclusion

There is other research in the same vein. Space precludes further consideration of it. Suffice to say that those papers that look at Skyping praxiologically, at what it entails for those who use it, show that it allows ‘seeings’ and ways of fabricating conversation that are bound up with these seeings. For want of a label one might say that Skyping involves the social production of seeing types and the consequences of these on topic management. These types and their implicated topics are articulated in and through elaborate arrangements of bodies, places and things through time; they are inevitably focused on and through the camera and the screen, on what these allow to be seen. It is through the articulations of people, things, time and seeing types that the particular vocabulary of Skype comes to have its valence, even if that vocabulary is appropriated from other settings – as in the case of coucou moments.

Coming to learn the looks of others then, the heart of Madianou and Miller’s thesis, turns out to require work that Madianou and Miller ignore (since their interest is in what that work allows). The evidence of this work, just sketched, entails as I say making seeings occur at just the right moments and ensuring somehow that what is seen at those times is what ought to be seen by all involved. One sees together on Skype, one doesn’t see from one point and view or from another, in other words. Skyping involves fabricating a joint seeing, an orientation of collaborative interest.

One might formulate all of these features in the following maxims of ‘user conduct’ or orientations. When people skype they-

  1. ‘Ensure that what I show is what the other sees, so that what they see is seen such that they notice the things I want them to’;
  2. ‘I do this in patterned ways so that my sought-for seeings can be echoed in their subsequent turns; first me doing a coucou and then the other doing one of their own, and so forth’.
  3. ‘I do this so as to make Skyping a joint endeavour where things to be seen are agreed – so that Skyping is something we do together.’

The way I have expressed these maxims makes them seem awkward, ponderous almost. That is not how Skype is used, though. What I am saying is that people don’t just look at each other, at either end of the Skype connection. They come to see together when seeing here means looking with agreed and mutually intelligible intentions – that they in effect agree ways of seeing together, of looking in ways that both or all on a call understand and orient to. I think these ways have a kind of logic to them, or rather that there are number of logic types to be found if one looks – like the logic of coucouing.  Key to all, however, is an orientation that has an interrogative stance, a way of looking that emphasises the seeking of things to notice (through seeing) and the seeing of things thereby to talk about. And always this is jointly produced: this work is collaborative; people do this together even as they take turns individually. One looks to see what to do in a Skype call, to see what to talk about, to see how to continue, but one does this together.

Given this, one might suggest that Skyping is effortful. It demands the management of topic and concerns through the skilful use of seeing types and sequential display of objects for view. One would imagine that fitting Skype into the natural rhythms of already busy daily lives is thus intimately connected to the intensity of the experience, this effortfulness, if this is the right label. Presumably also, the effortfulness of Skype is at once its problem and its appeal: if someone (or persons) has or have the energy, the prospect of a Skype call might entice them and they will offer their engaged attention willingly. If they don’t have that vitality, they might resist the beckoning of a Skype ringtone, the summons in an SMS, the scheduled logging in articulated through a Facebook posting. Perhaps they may communicate nevertheless, but will choose less forthright modalities of doing so. Perhaps also it is this that accounts for why the scheduling activities take the form they do, with Skyping being in the middle of prior acts of communication that help set up this demanding moment.

The point of noting these matters is that it allows us to understand that judgements about whether to Skype or not are bound to the work of seeing and noticing, and that this is the work of being family and friends across distance, when those connections are articulated in and through Skype. It doesn’t matter whether the family in question consists of kids in the Philippines and Mothers in London or, say, two friends in the suburbs of Paris. Wherever they are, whosever they are, whatever their relation, there is a logic to the engagements they make through Skype, a purpose articulated in doing so. This logic has a particular kind of meaning and delivers a special kind of enchantment. Seeing is central to it, but not because this seeing is somehow resonant of the seeing as a natural feature of face to face conversation but because, in Skype, seeing becomes the business, the purpose and the fun of communication – for it is here that seeing becomes the thing looked for in the talking.  This is the grammar of Skype. This is part of the everyday vocabulary of being in touch.

References

Brown, B. Green, N. & Harper, R. (Eds), (2001) Wireless World: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the mobile age, Springer Verlag, Hiedleberg and Godalming, UK.

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Harper, R. (2013) Texture: human expression in the age of communications overload, MIT Press, Boston.

Harper, R. Palen, L. & Talyor, A. (Eds) (2005) The Inside Text: Social perspectives on SMS, Kluwer, Dordrecht, Netherlands.

Harris, R. (1981) The Language Myth, London, Duckworth.

Katz, J. (2006) Magic in the Air: Mobile communication and the transformation of social life, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick.

Levinson, S. (1983) Pragmatics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Licoppe, C. & Morel, (2014) Appearings in Video Communications, in: Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship, Conference Proceedings, Microsoft Research. Cambridge, June.

Madianou, M., & Miller, D. (2012) Migration and New Media: Transnational Families and Polymedia, Routledge, London.

Miller, D. & Sinanan, J. (2014) Webcam, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Massey, D. (2005) For Space, Sage, London

Papacharissi, Z. (Ed.). (2011). A Networked Self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites, London: Routledge.

Peters, J. D. (1999), Speaking into the Air: A history of the idea of communication, Chicago University Press.

Relieu, M. (2014) ‘Say Hello’: Talk and Visibility on Domestic Video Calls, in: Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship, Conference Proceedings, Microsoft Research. Cambridge, June.

Sandis, C. (2012) The Things We Do and Why We do Them, Palgrave, London

Skyrms, B (2010) Signals: Evolution, Learning and Information, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Sunakawa, C. & Bono, M.  (2014) ‘Greetings in family and friend’s conversations through webcams’, in: Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship, Conference Proceedings, Microsoft Research. Cambridge, June.

Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self-Knowledge, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Winch, P. (1958) The Idea of a Social Science, Routledge, London.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations, (trans Anscombe), New York, Macmillan.

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 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 to this list. Christian typically labels the doings in question as ‘work’ though it is not understood as work by the individuals who undertake 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.