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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

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.

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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.

Is the internet making our social lives more dynamic?

18 May

Introduction

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

A sociology of Friendship

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

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

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

Communications technology and human connection

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

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

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

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

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

Investigating the impact of the internet

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

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

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

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

Agent-based Modelling

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

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

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

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

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

•to test theories of explanation;

•to explore dynamics;

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

•to examine possible outcomes.

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

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

What do we find?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The concept of communications overload and the sociology of mobile communications

30 Apr

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

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

 

April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry

27 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting dogma and seeking to explore human experience

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

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

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

Time and Human Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry and time

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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……….