Tag Archives: communications technology

Why Skype?

2 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to say, what to see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dialogues with computers?

9 Jul

At the conference on Human Computer Interaction in Paris (CHI-2013), one of the more interesting panels asked why spoken word dialogues between humans and computers have not had the success predicted. Voice recognition is now good, and the points of interaction with machines make voice-based dialogues not only easy but often preferable for safety reasons. Using voice commands when driving a car, for example, is certainly less hazardous than keyboard data entry. Voice-based systems are quite common, too; most people can hardly say they reject them because of unfamiliarity. Finally, voice-based dialogues seem ‘natural’; ‘intuitive’ one might say.

One would think that, taken together, these reasons would make voice-based interactions, dialogues with computing, the norm. And yet it isn’t.

Many of the participants in the panel (and those who added comments from the floor) suggested that the reason(s) for this had to do with a profound resistance amongst users to speaking with computers. Something about doing so left people feeling as if trust was at issue. Users either don’t trust in the systems they are dialoguing with, fearing they are being misled or fobbed off with interactions designed to trap them. Or they don’t trust in their own participation in such interactions: they fear they are being made fools of in ways they cannot understand.

These discussions led me to reflect on my own current reading. Dialogues with computing is certainly a hot topic – though the concern here is not with the adequacy of the technology that enables this – speech recognition engines, dialogue protocols and so forth. It has to do with the purposes or consequences of such dialogues.

For example, Douglas Rushkoff argues in his brief and provocative book, Program or be Programmed (2010), when people rely on computers to do some job, it is not like Miss Daisy trusting in her chauffeur to take her car to the right destination (an allusion to a film and book of the same name). It’s not what computers are told that is the issue. It’s what computers tell us, the humans, as they get on with whatever task is at hand. And this in turn implies things about who and what we are because of these dialogues with computing.

According to Rushkoff, there is no knowing what the purpose of an interaction between person and machine might be: it is certainly not as simple as a question of command and response. In his metaphor about driving, what comes into doubt are rarely questions about whether the computer has correctly heard and identified a destination. The dialogues that we have with computers lead us to doubt in why some destination is chosen. This in turn leads to doubts about whether such choices should be in the hands of the human or the computer. The computer seems to ‘know’ more, why should it not decide?

John Naughton, in his From Gutenburg to Zuckerberg (2012), raises similarly large issues again illustrated with destinations. For him we need to ask whether we can trust computing (and the internet in particular) to lead us to dystopia or to heaven–though the contrast he presents is not entirely without irony: heaven is represented in the duplicitous appeal of Huxley’s Brave New World or dystopia in the self-evidently bleak form of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1984).

Meanwhile, Pariser complains in his Filter Bubble (2011) that we cannot trust in the dialogue with have with search engines: today, in the age of ‘the cloud’ and massive aggregation systems, search engine providers can hide things away from us in ways that we cannot guess. When we ask search engines something we cannot know what the answer will be for search engine technology is now deciding what we need or want; even what is good for us to know. That this is so is at once sinister and capitalistic, Pariser argues: sinister since it is disempowering of the human, capitalistic since it places the market above the public good. Search engines take you to what companies want to sell, not to what you need to know.

These books, subtle though they are, seem to miss something: they all assume that the issue is one about trusting either the computer or ourselves: that dialogues are between two parties, and the issue is that not both can be trusted – at least not all the time. And, importantly, it is not always the computer that breaks trust: sometimes a computer does know more than the human interlocutor, and so should be trusted to make the right decisions in certain circumstances. What these authors seem to miss is the question of what speaking with computers says about the value that people – that society more generally gives – to speech. John Durham Peters argues in his book, Speaking into the Air (1999), that one of the essential values that came out of the Old Testament was the Hebrew idea that speech distinguishes people from beasts. Or, rather, it is the capacity to speak to God that distinguishes humanity from the wild animal.

At the CHI conference I mention above, one of the panellists argued something similar: that people treat speaking as something hallowed, precious, a unique bond between people. It is therefore not a skill that should be debased into being a method of dealing with computers. As it happens this individual, Professor Matt Jones, of Swansea University, is a trained priest and so this view might reflect his desire to honour the spoken word as does the Old Testament. But as I listened to the various points of view put forward, including his own, I began to think that perhaps there is something to do with the status given to speech that leads people to resist defiling it with the mere task of communicating with computers. Perhaps there is something about our capacity to talk with other people (and our Gods if we so choose) that we want to preserve as well as honour.

This lead me to think of Wittgenstein and his remarks that if lions could speak we would not find anything to talk about with them. In his view, our conversations are about our human experience; what it means and feels to be human.

And then, as I reflected on the tribulations that using voice-based dialogues with computing induce, how foolish they can make one seem as they force us to keep repeating words and phrases, I began to realise that this foolishness might be making us feel less human. It degrades our hopes for what we want to be: gifted with words and talk, talk that bonds us with each other (and for some, like Matt Jones, to their God).

And then, as I recalled also the tasks one often seeks to undertake in such dialogues, I thought there was even more credit to the idea that talk with people is special. After all, a typical use of voice dialogues is to be found when someone calls a company to complain about a service or product. They find their attempts to speak with someone are spurned: they end up in engaged in endless and seemingly pointless dialogues with a computer!

This too, like the shame we feel when we are instructed on how to speak by computers, attests to our desire to speak to people.

Speech is not then a mere modality of interacting with computers; it’s a modality that has especial status for people: it’s the modality for being human. No wonder then that voice-based dialogues are not as popular as predicted. We really don’t want dialogues with computers.

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).