Tag Archives: analytic concepts

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

13 Jun

Reflections on a Colleague

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

Inventing a topic

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

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

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

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

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

A topic ignored

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current philosophy of action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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).