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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





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.

Is the internet making our social lives more dynamic?

18 May


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.


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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’.


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.

A Sense of Body

3 Feb

A colleague emails me and my colleagues at 12pm; she will do the same two hours later and then again at 6 am. Why? Is she doing this to imply she is on a night shift? This seems unlikely; our workplace is a research lab, not a manufacturing plant. Our hours tend to be civilised. Nevertheless she is doing so because she has an agenda that is related to hours of work. She wants to give the impression that she works so hard that in effect she works all the time. Being at work, sitting at her desk in her office, her bodily presence at work, won’t convey that impression of course: none of her colleagues would notice. After all, during the times she emails, they will be at home, probably in bed, tucked up nice and warm. She is using one of the properties of email to create this sense of her body, of her body being somehow present in the domain of labour, the ‘office’, all the time, not just at night. She is doing this in a particular way, one might say. But one might also say it is an odd way, odd at least in the sense that it is only something that has been possible recently. To put it in digital argot, she is using electronic messaging to create a sense of her ‘presence’ when the presence is not of her real body, its fleshiness as it were (and all that implies about the mixed things that people are: brains and bones, minds and hearts, rational creatures yet emotional too, and so on). Her presence is her – whatever that might be if not flesh and blood.

Technology is allowing what I will call a shift in what ‘being somewhere’ means, where that assumes physical presence in that place or location to one where that means digital presence – which consists of an absent bodilyness. With one, she disappears when her body goes; with the other, the one she turns to, she is always ‘there’, wherever there is and despite where her body might be.

She manages this remarkable metaphysics through digital actions.

An obvious way of developing on this point, on this metaphysics, would be to say that this is a manifestation of modern ways of working, where distance has been dissolved by technology. In this view, one can work anywhere, as long as one has the Internet. One can work anytime too, indeed all the time if one so wishes. One is merely a point in a system of connections. Yet this allows us to play with the metaphysics of space, the body and all that means: presence/absence, distance/nearness.

But that is not the shift I am wanting to think about. I want to think about the relationship between the things people do, their body as a thing related to this, and the connection between this and what computers let that thing, them, their body do or be understood as. I want to suggest that there are a number of possible shifts that can be imagined in relation to this duality: a duality about the self, the body, on the one hand, and how this is mediated by digital technologies on the other. There is an intertwining of the two, the body/self and the computer, I want to suggest, that can lead us in to strange places where what we understand is the ‘who’ or the ‘what’ (a particular body say) behind the digital act shifts and alters. It alters not simply as we make new constructions of ourselves, of our bodies, but also through changes brought about in computers too: what the body is is sometimes affected by technology: what computers afford lead us to see different things about what bodies afford too.

These shifts are not all analogies of this first example, the one to do with presence/absence but are rather better thought of as diverse and subtle; altering some aspects of what is represented as bodily and what is possible in terms of computing viz-a- viz that sense of body.

Consider the following shift: with digital technology my colleague is no longer merely the recipient of information. The fact that she sends email attests to something else: it notifies us of the fact that she is the producer of information and not solely (or even) a consumer of it. This shift is often talked about (especially as regards organisations) because it is said to be virtuous: making organisations better than in the past. It turns around the idea that, with communications technology, with the Internet as a kind of synonym for all kinds of contemporary ways of communicating, the relationship between information and the human body is reversed in organisational contexts. Before, organisations (somehow) produced content and this was consumed by the organisation’s staff, by its bodies, as it were. Now, with digital connectivity, with the Internet inside and between organisations, people, embodied members of the organisation, come to produce it. The contrast is one between information produced through the limiting, unidirectional prism of organisational hierarchy and constraint on the one hand, and, on the other, a turn to the expressive freedom of individuals, real bodies speaking thing ‘from the heart’ rather than from the ‘rule book’. A further contrast used to illuminate this distinction is the one between ‘Corpspeak’ and ‘ blogging’ .

Lots of people have remarked on this change; a revolution is occurring in organisational life as well as in the public polity, some would have us believe (see for example, Hewitt’s 2005 book, Blog: Understanding the Information that is Changing your World; also Scoble & Isreal’s Naked Conversations of 2006). Never mind that one cannot quite understand how in the past organisations produced information if not through the embodied actions of staff – this is the contrast made: between a dehumanised world of organisational information and one made creative by the presence of real active bodies (see for example, the now somewhat old book, A Thousand Tribes, by Lissak & Bailey, 2002).

It maybe. Maybe we have become more ‘bodied’; but how odd that it would be digital technology that lets us……….

The Absence in Kinect

23 Jan

It seems to me that the message Kinect advertisements deliver emphasizes an absence; attention is drawn to how something is missing in the relationship between the human and the technology. It makes the claim that there is no ‘how’ when someone interacts with Kinect.  Indeed, the claim is stronger than this: if the publicity is to be believed, there is no interaction at all. This is because, as the adverts put it, with this technology, ‘You are the Controller’.

Obviously this is simple publicity; advertising does not pretend to be science. Nevertheless, there is much to consider in what is being emphasized in phrases such as this. What is being proposed is that, with Kinect, there is isomorphism between, on the one side, the human and what they want to do, and, on the other, the machine’s ability to understand, grasp, comprehend or, in this case more accurately, to ‘see’ what those intentions are and then respond to them. It is because Kinect can ‘comprehend’ these intentions without any intermediation, no keyboard, mouse-clicks or consul, that the publicity has this odd absence at its heart: it seeks to celebrate the removal of mechanical means for controlling computers.

Whereas once the computer mouse might have been the centre of an advertising campaign, now in a world where the technology can let you be the controller, all those sorts of technologies can go. This future holds less – less technology to get in the way. And thus, so the hype goes, we are allowed to be ‘natural’. All other means of interacting with a computer are, by dint of this phrase, implied to be somehow other than natural. In this view, the keyboard was merely a technological step on a path to this ‘natural’ mode; the computer mouse simply a cute technological aid that, like the keyboard itself, is soon to disappear, to be found in the future only in museums and histories of innovation.

So, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural? The trouble with both is that they are pregnant with numerous meanings and interpretations – it’s not that they are vague; it is that they are too evocative.

For example, the word natural is bound up with what its use implies as unnatural. Given that Kinect does away with a keyboard, one interpretation that goes with this usage could therefore be that people do not ‘naturally’ want to communicate by written words – the primary output of a keyboard. Doing so is an artifice of technology, one might think. Yet one only has to think of linguistics and one of their continual bugbears. As Baron laments in her book Alphabet to Email  linguists are regularly asked to explain to those with little knowledge of their discipline that the written word is not a surrogate for some other human activity that is ordinarily preferred or more ‘natural’. The other activity that is often invoked in these discussions is, of course, the spoken word. Speaking is natural, this vexingly wrong view holds, while writing is a forced necessity when speaking is not practical (see also my own book Texture 2010). As Baron explains, this is completely wrong; writing is a different social act than verbal communication; it is not a replacement or a proxy.

Consequently, when Kinect is said to offer users a more natural form of interaction what is it that is being contrasted? It would appear not to be the creation of text.  Perhaps then, the kind naturalness in question has to do with other tasks. One is sorely tempted to make a pun: Kinect is natural for certain kinds of interaction, when a person wants to a computer to do certain sorts of things, but evidently not for all things – so what then? Just what is the ‘natural domain’ of Kinect? Games? But is natural what comes to mind when one thinks of games? Surely artifice, rule-boundedness, the temporary abandonment of the natural and everyday attitude is what comes to the fore.

Similarly, what is one to make of the phrase ‘You are the controller’? Is a person not a controller when they use a keyboard and mouse? Does an individual somehow relinquish some control when they use these devices? Presumably that is not what is being implied when the phrase ‘you control’ is coined. Alternatively it might be immediacy is being implied: with Kinect one can get the machine to do as one wishes instantly, as quickly as one can move one’s hand: this brings to mind the idea of direct interaction, so beloved by some in HCI.

And then besides these concerns there is the bigger question of what is meant by ‘you’. For it is not the inner self that is being alluded to, assuming that is that there is such a thing. After all, one only needs to recall Turkel’s account of the joy that early programmers felt when they could see how what went on ‘inside their head’ could sometimes, with the right coding, appear to manifest itself externally, on the computer screen. This was certainly her thesis in The Second Self even if she has now recanted. No, what seems to be of concern here is the body; this is what is meant when the phrase you are the controller: for it is what one’s body does that acts as the mechanism to control the system. It’s one’s torso and limbs that do the controlling, not thoughts in the head. But just as this is so, then this also means that the social who, the status of the individual who plays, is therefore not part of the vocabulary of Kinect: bodies are not just thoughtless, they are without status too.

All of these questions highlight then the oddness of the phrase ‘you are the controller’ and relatedly the term ‘natural’. It seems to me that, though they might be odd, one ought not to think that they are therefore wrong; it is more probable that the terms need grounding in rather prosaic particularities. One imagines that what is natural needs to be understood and evoked in references to spaces where a user and their machine can see each other without interfering with other domestic activities, for example, in spaces where it is natural to game, say; one imagines that the phrase ‘you are the controller’ makes sense when one disregards certain aspects of the self, and privileges others.

The bottom line is that even though the interaction that Kinect enables might indeed be immensely appealing and may make users experience a new sense of control and wonder at how easy and ‘natural’ it seems to be, for those in research, ‘just what’ the experience of Kinect is, what it affords and how it can be designed around, needs careful investigation……

to report on this soon..