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Communication technology and theory: Research into the interpersonal and social interface

Summary: Communication research on the impact of the internet and communication technology on interpersonal communication and society. I mix sociology with human factors approaches and communication theory to suggest design approaches to communication technology beyond computer mediated interaction and HCI design. The original field of work was human computer interaction and computer mediated interaction. I have since formalized this more as social interaction design.


Behind any kind of project there's a problem; a problem for which the project offers some hope of solution, of resolution. An answer, in short, to a question. Here you will find only questions. But they are leading questions. Questions that point in directions worth following (or such is my hope). Questions that describe a set of problems, and which might be considered by those pursuing those solutions.

Communication technologies offer up a potentially vast set of questions and issues, for the very reason that they involve two very different modes of production: the social and the technical. Not only are there the standard issues of computer mediated interaction, and user interface design, but there are additional concerns derived from the transformative nature of social interactions and relations mediated or produced with the help of technology. As Mark Poster wrote in the mid 90's: "...the Internet is more like a social space than a thing so that its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers. The effects of Germany upon the people within it is to make them Germans (at least for the most part); the effects of hammers is not to make people hammers, though Heideggerians and some others might disagree, but to force metal spikes into wood." Communication technology changes our relations and the very foundation on which we build them: communication. It does this not by acting on us, but through a mutually informing process at the end of which is a "social practice."

It is important not to grant technology the power to determine human or social behavior (lest there be any doubt, this is not a vote for the NRA. Guns are bad). Designers exist not simply to make better looking or better functioning technologies. They exist to anticipate the ways in which the marketplace will adopt and use the technology. I believe that we create and constitute ourselves in and through our communication, which is to say, with and through interaction with others. And for that reason, I find communication technology doubly interesting to designers. For it not only requires us to think about interface and human factor considerations commonly associated with any technology design. It forces us to consider the interface of social and interpersonal dimensions with technology. Which means using sociology, linguistics, pragmatics, psychology, and more.

These questions are here as markers on a map, no, a territory... They are here to help us map the territory (since the two shall never meet) that lies ahead. And is it goes with prospecting, so it goes with charting a field of study: the more you learn, the more questions you raise. More and more, we are going to find technology between us and our relationships, sometimes seeming to bring us together, other times seemingly to keep us apart. These are design issues if there ever were any.

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