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

18 Apr

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

Navigating the domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Selected Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

Lessig, L. Remix, Penguin (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Philosophy of Nowness: Time, Facebook and Poetry

27 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting dogma and seeking to explore human experience

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

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

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

Time and Human Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry and time

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture versus modern analytic philosophy

6 Mar

I have been bringing together another edited collection, this time on philosophy, sociology and technology – in particular cloud technologies and their impact on the internet (prior collections have looked at the Future Home, at  SMS, and Wireless Connectivity, amongst other things: I have previously mentioned my most recent, on the Connected Home). The philosophy arguments have been drawing my attention not because I think that the latest arguments in philosophy are appealing; I don’t think they are: but they are current and people are espousing them: their oddness dismays me and I feel as if I ought to say something. ’Hey, that can’t be right,‘ I want to shout.

Let me be boring on this: the reason why I don’t find the appealing is because these philosophical arguments seem to distract attention from the enormously rich tools of culture we have in such a way as to diminish those tools, almost to discredit them. A current concern in philosophy, for example, has to do with how you explain, through experimental evidence, how people understand each other (Bratman’s work comes to mind as an example of this (1992) – though I think it mostly derives from Donald Davidson’s essay ‘Action, Reasons, and Causes’ of 1963). The starting premise of these enquiries is oftentimes the idea of free will, how this is to be accounted for, and how this in turn leads to questions about how the acting agent understands (and thus acts upon) other’s intentions; thus to collaboration, etc, the theme of Bratman.

Leaving aside the details about that, what I am suggesting is that the premise of freewill turns into enquiries about a sort of  solipsism (though this word isn’t used in the narratives in question -I am inclined to think that using that word or alluding to it would be too literary for current ‘empirical philosophers’).

Let me put it another way: some philosophers commence their thinking with the idea that people do not share a world on common; people are all essentially isolated (if not physically) – certainly without the gift of understanding the motives or purpose or aspirations of others. People are Cartesian entities, if you will, that exist without an intimate sense of others (and needless to say without a common God who can bring them together – there isn’t much religion in the mis-en-scène of contemporary philosophy).

Thus one will see already that the new breed of philosophers don’t look at what people do and experience in the real world – since having a sense of what others are about is the cornerstone of how we arrange our affairs even if we often do a bad job of it. Instead what lots of philosophers do is a kind of weird science: they put people in laboratories – Bratman is exemplar here – and set them tasks that they have to do together – playing a game, solving a puzzle – and then the philosopher’s watch what happens. The philosophers claim that through the evidence they garner thus they can discover how people come to understand each other.

So far it sounds sensible, if a bit odd: why put people in a peculiar setting to understand their normal affairs?

But now, hear this: the really curious thing is this (not merely the fact that philosophers think you can understand people by putting them in labs): it is that the philosophers transcribe what the subjects say to each other (in the experiments) and then ‘analyse’ those words. How bizarre: the philosophers are pretending that they cannot listen to what is being said by their subjects (i.e. as these poor compliant individuals who are getting on with the tasks they have been given and talk about it as they do); they cannot listen to them in an ordinary way but rather they, the philosophers, can only ‘understand’ what these ‘subjects achieve’ through a form of scientific magic, the mechanism of transcription and ‘analysis’. It is as if philosophers make other people, not themselves, other than human and somehow like Martian’s issuing forth grunts and animal calls that need to be ‘interpreted’. The philosopher’s art is to figure out how these sounds (words to you and me) point towards how people, these Alien- like animals, come to understand each other and ‘collaborate’. It seems to me that these philosophers think they are doing something like a cognitive science allied with an analytic philosophy but really they are corrupting understanding, the understanding that is constitutive of the world.

In my mind, these views draw attention away from the possibility that people already have tools that let them (us, you , me, all of us) understand each other. These tools have taken centuries to work out and cultivate. They are not the things one finds in laboratories or experiments.

The kinds of tools I am thinking of are big things and little things. As regards the latter: the kinds of things I am thinking of are, for example, little things like books, novels, poems, all of which are, in my mind, cultural devices that have been devised as ways to let people tell their stories, the tales as it were of their unique voyage, which they then tell (give?, share?) to others. These tales are, of course, both real and imagined.

Novels, poems, books of all sorts, are written around a different premise to the one that philosophers like Bratman start with. They are begun with the understanding that everyone lives in a world shared and known in common. It is also assumed that each person voyages in different places and in different ways and their nature (for want of a word, though this is powerful) colours the experience of this differently. Some philosophers agree with this view, this starting point: Cora Diamond is a case in point in her ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ (2008).

Be that as it may, let me say more about nature. By that I am thinking of such things as character, personality, education, the stuff that makes us what we are: people. We all know that different people have different reasons for articulating their experiences; we know too that people have different abilities; some have eloquence and artfulness, and some insights that are unusual, even unique.

Amongst the reasons we read books, then, is to hear the tale of how it might have been for us but for circumstances, but also to read the insights of those who see more clearly things that we ourselves experience but can’t articulate as well (and sometimes don’t even see).

Books, poems and such like aren’t then a solution to solipsism or the skeptics dilemma (viz ‘are there others in the world?’); they are then devices to let people explore a world in common. The charm in such things is provided through discovering (learning, reading) that other’s voyages are more interesting, other’s views are more articulate, theirs deeper than one’s own. Otherness here is not a philosophical problem; it’s a poetic one: one that is interesting for the way it is articulated.

I read some literary theorist who put these views forward some weeks ago: he claimed it was Emerson’s view, but I don’t know enough about literary theory to be sure. But anyway  I wholeheartedly agree: I think this view is the correct one. Views articulated by philosophers who think we need to discover what others are about –  and who think they can discover how people ‘do this’  through looking at this experimentally- undermine the credit we should give tools like the novel and thereby also distract attention away from those tools to other modes of practice – ones that offer little on this subject – like experimental ones.

It is for these sorts of reasons that I read current philosophers and despair. I also get a bit annoyed since it seems to me that Wittgenstein more or less argued for a sensitivity to such cultural tools in his own later work, but that seems mostly forgotten in the corridors of philosophy now: Donaldson’s myopia is the rage; Bratman’s research simply the output of a distraction.

So there you go!

Bratman, M. (1992) Shared Cooperative Activity, The Philosophical Review, 101(2) pp 327-341.

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

Diamond, C. (2008) ‘The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy’ in Cavell, S. et al, (Eds) Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia University Press, New York

A Sense of Body

3 Feb

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

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

She manages this remarkable metaphysics through digital actions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Absence in Kinect

23 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to report on this soon..

Hello Grumps!

23 Jan

I wondered whether anyone might want to idle away some time reading the scribbles that don’t get into the ponderous journals and books of a professional HCI researcher in Corporate life?

No?

Well what about the scribblings of one who finds Baudrillard funny, contemporary analytic philosophy sterile, and HCI a way of exploring what it means to be ‘human’ -even a way of thinking anew about that without  recourse to the likes of Harroway – more to the likes of, let us say, oh, John Naughton?