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

Summary: Online research into human factors of communication technology use, with a focus on the impact of internet technologies on interpersonal and social interactions and relations. This project dates to 2003 and was a grand attempt to address communication technology from sociological perspectives. Not surprisingly, it generated more questions than it answered.

Communication Technology: Project Introduction

There is perhaps nothing more critical to society today than communication. Because we now live locally and globally at the same time, we need communication to translate between the two. And to help us conduct all the commerce and interaction that turns the world on a daily basis. But besides playing its role in our economies and systems, communication is what binds as people. It is what keeps our society healthy and sane. It's how we maintain our relationships, and how we make new friends. How we extend trust, as well as how we maintain it. To sustain communication today we depend on technologies. The internet, wireless, phones, and computers逆hese and the many more devices whose ever-expanding web of connectivity has become the very fabric of our culture. Now that everywhere is nowhere and everyplace is no place, we're all equidistant and immediate. Wired or wireless, we're connected in ways that have never before been possible.

And yet we seem to ache more than ever to connect with people. For all our investments in communication technology, the paradox of our time is that our means of connection have become the condition of our separation. Through cell phones and email, chat rooms and message boards, IM and texting, our relationships are becoming fragmented by the very media we use to maintain them. More connected now than ever, we long for real connections.

This project is an investigation of technologies used for communication and of the practices we develop around them. It is a look at how we use media to get things done, to coordinate our activities, and to maintain our relationships. It is also an attempt to construct a pragmatics of mediated interactions, as a way of understanding the ways in which interpersonal and social aspects of communication undergo transformation when mediated by technology. Unlike other approaches to communication, and to an extent unlike many approaches to technology, I have tried here to examine mediated communication as a form unto itself, as social technology. I have chosen this direction out of a conviction that the best path to grasping technology is through an understanding of how human and social practices use it. Technology transforms the social just as the social anticipates its technologies.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago the telegraph ripped communication from the physical world, enabling with a lightning stroke the transmission of electric signals, and thus, our ability to talk without seeing each other. It was more significant than the industrial age, but we didn't know it then. Since then we have learned not only how to talk over the telephone but how to talk in text, in emails, in chat and in IM. We have learned how to maintain relations of all kinds through our networking technologies. And a wide range of activities菊conomic, dating, work, educational, financial, and so on蟻re increasingly affected by the new forms of interaction and communication that technologies themselves make possible.

We have entered an age of communications. The culture of technology is no longer defined by information and information processing. It's defined by connectivity, relations, and communication. What marks this culture, from our perspective, is the manner in which it is producing new proximities. The very connectivity provided by technologies today transforms our access, immediacy, and presence, to one another. It also transforms the temporal rhythms by which we stay in touch and conduct our immediate interactions with one another蟻s well as the longer term and persistent relations that are so important to our sense of cultural membership and social belonging.

As we dis-embed traditional practices from physical contexts, and conduct ever more of our activities through mediating technologies, we create new practices. We try to integrate technologies into our relations so that they can be involved in the production of meaningful interpersonal and social encounters. But technologies not only transform immediate exchanges (phone calls, emails, messaging), they also redefine the kinds of continuity we have with one another. The ribbon of time on which our relationships and our social institutions unfold is no longer analog. It is digital, multi-tracked, multiplexed, and sometimes deeply out of synch. If the reproduction of values requires face work and face commitments, and if trust and reciprocity belong to the world of co-present interactions, what might the consequences be for a society that is turning increasingly to technology for its reproduction? What happens when the face disappears? When all that is left of it is a Cheshire grin, and an digital one at that?

If the question concerning technology and addressing itself to society is "how does technology increase our power?" then the issues emerging from our profound adoption of communications technologies are only beginning to crystallize. I'm firmly convinced that insofar as any culture requires the interaction of its members for its own growth and survival, so does ours. And we do it through communication. Unlike many other cultures, we are capable of change and transformation outside of the long-running biological processes that are supposed to keep us up to date. Communication operates on two levels: as a binding exchange between individuals, and as a reproduction of social norms, values, and other cultural "stock."

This project is an inquiry into the social interface between communication technologies and the user. I begin with the assumption that technologies involved in the mediation of interpersonal or social interaction do not simply conduct an operation, or execute a function, as they might in a more purely informational domain. Rather, I assume that these technologies become a "production format" or means of production for communication, and that a technology's "use" is nothing other than the set of practices that emerge around it. Those of us interested in designing these technologies, or in using them for some purpose or another (and this could be online dating or distance learning), must understand that we should look not at the technology but at practices. That said, this is not a collection of examples (that's another project altogether). It's a sampling of questions that scratch at the core of the transformation, where technical and social meet. Why bother? Because if communication is a mode of reproduction as critical as the biological, technology is far more relevant than we understand.