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Through the Wire: excerpts

This chapter examines the ways in which technologies used in communication "select" their audiences. This might simply be just another way to say "users." The point being that audiences and populations assembled by a technology are different from those assembled in physical spaces, or "real life."

Isomorphy to existing social networks

Technologies of communication are more or less isomorphic or sensitive to existing patterns of interaction within a social circle or social network. Isomorphy would be measured in terms of how the medium's architecture as well as its modality (e.g. a/synchronous) corresponds to the types and frequency of transactions in a given community. One group may comprise of relatively thin relationships, maintained perhaps irregularly and infrequently. Members of such a group might only need to interact when completing a task in the real world. Their use of media would be a means by which to facilitate getting the task accomplished. Here, an asynchronous medium like email might be most suitable to coordinating activity, providing status updates, communicating information, and so on. Email intervenes less in daily life, and offers users some protection from the chagrin that accompanies overzealousness. Groups that meet frequently face to face might opt instead for the phone, in order not to miss one another as well as to obtain a higher guarantee of commitment. Phones are much more useful when members of a group need to convince one another. They are also faster and more effective when it comes to working out and finalizing details.

No group operates with a single pattern of interaction only. Most groups, in fact, engage along many axes of interaction, each varying perhaps in frequency, intensity, density, degree of commitment, affective expression, etc. So the isomorphy of a medium will be found, if in fact we can find it, with respect to a habit or routine activity. And even then we may discover that media sometimes instantiate new patterns of interaction, emergent perhaps because they eliminate inefficiencies, misunderstandings and ambiguities, undesired responsibilities, etc. from practices involving an old medium.

Virtual Spaces

What constitutes a given population? What distinguishes a crowd from a mass, an audience from a group of spectators, a march from a throng, a gathering from a multitude? Clearly, some idea of what is going on would help the observer to make preliminary distinctions. For activity, often being the focal point of any human-I've run out of terms-collectivity will give shape to a multitude, focus to a group, attentiveness to an audience, participation to spectators, purpose to a march, spontaneity to a throng, and membership to a crowd. Activity itself is a mechanism of selection, serving to orient visual focus, physical disposition, and all manner of behavioral expectations as encoded in rituals and past times. The setting in which a population is assembled will also tell us a great deal about what its members are doing. What they are allowed to do, also. As well as how long they will do it for, possibly why, for whom, etc. Settings of interaction provide us with all of these kinds of clues and cues and many more. Technologies used in creating populations for whatever purpose forfeit their access to these markers. No longer constrained by factors of face to face interaction, communications technologies set up boundaries defined by the manner in which they select and distribute a population. Connectivity determined by extension or reach of the network, its means of connection, its ability to produce immediacy and call upon presence availability-these are the means by which media assemble and distribute their members. Any mediated population, in other words, is disembedded from local (physical and ritual) context and re-incarnated in virtual space.

Boundary creation and maintenance

Boundaries of any assembled population are traditionally maintained by the codes that frame an interaction. Skipping over the details, suffice it to say that the frame is that which, if asked, participants would be able to describe such that their disposition towards the situation and towards other participants would be possible and for the most part consistent. Boundaries are drawn by people in response to tacitly understood (social) parameters. They apply any time we wish to know where and when a social event begins and ends. The internet in particular, because it creates a virtual collectivity of sorts, has a dramatic effect on boundary creation and maintenance. In fact the "net effect" is itself a good example of the degree to which the internet, through its multiplicity of connections and their intrinsic equidistance, perforates boundaries and transforms the mechanics of population selection. Media follow processes of population selection that are as informed by technical infrastructure as they are by social architecture. The internet in particular creates new populations (more on these later) by connecting people across bridges and through "brokers" and "stars"-people whose connections build networks. Furthermore, the boundaries that would normally confine interaction and communication to a ratified audience are incapable of preventing certain messages from propagating far beyond the site of their original production. Messages are passed along on the net not according to the boundaries laid down by a social encounter, but by the connective principle of individual relations. Messaging on the net is not constrained by group in a strong sense.

Moving Targets

Audiences are made up of an assemblage of individuals arranged by their shared presence to a situation bounded in time and space. That is, they comprise people having a shared experience and object of focus. We tend naturally to think of audiences as occupying the same physical space. But media, in particular mass media, often assemble audiences in time more than in space. In fact the very essence of media is their ability to create a shared experience for people separate from one another. Think of a television or radio audience. Or of a readership. The mediated events to which we are members of an audience have a temporal position without having a location in space or gathering place.

This kind of an audience is known also as traffic. To some it's market share. Be that as it may, the difference here worth considering is that media place a value on audiences that are by their very nature ephemeral. Attention is captured for a period of time but lost again until the next time. The routinization of time stands out as a particularly interesting phenomenon because it demonstrates the extent to which media are able to motivate individual participation, say as audience members loyal to a given television program, successfully enough that they can count on those individuals integrating routine scheduling into daily practices. Traffic means a great deal to those responsible for media programming. For traffic is a direct expression of a medium's ability to capture attention. And attention is of course the one resource over which media have no direct means of control.

These audiences are noteworthy also for the absence of any interaction among their members. Television audiences are not physically, or in any way, aware of one another's presence. And yet in a sense they are. The distance between members, their isolation from each other and hence from the many engaging possibilities they could otherwise pursue if they were in fact face to face, increases the demands on the event broadcast and its projection of a compelling mediated experience.

It's been said, somewhere, that a system is defined by that which escapes it. We give our media only passing attention. Is it the ultimate struggle of any medium that it develop ways to ensnare its audience members and its users against the inevitability that they will all, sooner or later, fade away?

Audience Attention

Media are attention-getting devices. Their ability to serve their purposes hinges on their ability to grab our attention. For if we don't pay them our attention, their presentation of mediated experience, or their transmission of human communication, is short-circuited at their most important functional point-the interface between human and technical worlds. Enter the movie theater and before the show begins the house lights dim and a silence of anticipation falls over the audience. Members of the audience check their attention to one another and turn it towards the screen in front of them. Drinks are placed in their cup holders, and candy wrappers are scrunched up and tossed to the floor. Audience silence awaits the main event. Television, much less a medium disposed to physical audience production than film, runs programs in half hour increments by a schedule published ahead of time and designed for maximum audience penetration. But the audiences assembled by television programming are disparate and physically uncoordinated. These audiences are built around aggregation. Televisions occupy a convenient place in living rooms around the world. They are positioned to be seen without having to be watched. Rarely do the members of a television audience take up the linear arrangement reserved for theaters and churches. Their attention is more casual and remote. An in fact, between television programming as background event and channel surfing, many programs are not watched in their entirety.

Communications media, unlike entertainment media, do not insist on a serial commitment of attention. Attention to phones, to email, instant messaging, SMS, and less-intrusive modes of communication is back-grounded. In the case of synchronous media, a call comes in and asserts its claim on the recipient with a distinctive ring. Like the ringing of a doorbell, the phone announces an incoming call with a claim to attention we have become so conditioned to heed that we normally respond without second thought. We hear a call, not a ring, the difference being that a call is directed at us. Note that for all the phone calls made in movies, filmmakers spare us the jarring experience of the phone ringing, choosing instead to show us an actor placing a call on the screen. When it comes to asynchronous media, attention is directed by the user. These are user-driven media, and while they may beep and blink to indicate incoming messages, paying attention is a matter left to the user. Unlike synchronous interactions, messages can always wait. Callers call, messages arrive.

If a medium's success depends on our giving it our attention, of what consequence is it that attention is an expression of time? Can we say that experiences vary by the degree of time they command? If so, is an iterative experience valued differently than an isolated one? And does it make any difference that with asynchronous media our attention is directed by choice, even if that choice is made in a moment of distraction? And where is temporality in the eyes, and the ears-the organs through which we focus so much of our attention?

Media artist and performer Laurie Anderson (or brenda laurel?) once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that we don't go to the projectors, we go to the movies. Media get our attention to the experience they provide. Movies are a mix of moving image and sound in a uninterrupted and framed presentation. Television, too, is moving image and sound but subject to interruption by domestic interventions. The experience we commit our attention to when using media of communication is another person or persons, represented as they are by a production format that gives us access to a limited field of perception and interaction. Attention is directed at communication itself and at the pressing ambiguities of relationship that are the stuff of intersubjectivity. Attention is thus an active participation in the negotiation of issues presented through communication, whether those pertain to the relationship, to information, to task completion, activity coordination, transactions, or whatever. Our attention to these experiences is less a product of the smooth and transparent presentation of an entertainment and more a matter of co-presence, getting in synch, and addressing distortions that result from mediation itself. In other words, some amount of attention is split away and directed at the medium itself. We are more aware of the medium in mediated communication than we are of the projector at the movies. This changes of course how we communicate: what we say, and how we say it, as well as to whom. Communication accommodates media as media must accommodate use practices. Attention is captured and distributed across networks, through intermittent and stuttering connections, held for only the shortest of interactions and then subdued until the next iteration of exchange. We should ask of a communications medium: what can people move one another to do through it? Of entertainment, we might ask: how much can it move the audience? Motivation, as that which translates from one person to his neighbor and fellow interactant, is a matter of communication; entertainment may stimulate us through simulation. Communication does it for real. So when it comes to audiences and the matter of attendance, count the points between their members, not their numbers by rows.

Subjects and Subjectivity

Power is exercised in modern society through the mobilization of subjectivities. This is the part played by media: the distribution of ideas, information, people (as images) and trends. Contents, in short, that can be circulated or reproduced by communication among subjects. We have to admit that whether or not this represents a form of political subjugation, the schooling that accompanies the distribution of knowledge in the modern age makes heavy use of mediation, both entertainment media and communications media. All media are in this sense social, and consequently, all communications technologies are inherently social. That is, they aim to satisfy social constraints as they seek transparency in domains of individual use.

Critical mass required for widespread adoption of communications technologies requires that technologies obtain the confidence and trust of their users that what is communicated through them arrives and arrives largely without excessive distortion. In practice, of course, we develop habits of use and interpretations of technical modes of presentation and form that reduce ambiguities created by technical interventions. As subjects, we permit technology the opportunity to translate and facilitate the reproduction of personal and other kinds of relations. Politically speaking, this is a non-coercive move. Our trust is invested in technologies not through strategic manipulation but through a voluntary offering. It is something we can take back should we choose to. Modern society operates through the distribution of knowledge and not through the arrangement of bodies with respect to the land. It is our subjectivity that is commanded, and not our physical labor. Communications technologies are a necessary component of the reproduction of modern society. It is only through connectivity that social forces exercise their binding power across space. Whether they are truly capable of doing this will remain to be seen. That they can successfully motivate a socius is proven; but whether and how they can reclaim confidences will be known only through a real test. We have yet to discover how effective our emergency broadcast system can be. Flow control is no longer as simple as it used to be.

The Privileged Pair

In our culture the strongest single form of binding relationship is the pair. It's in the form of the pair that we engage most deeply in intimacies and trust relations, manifesting, perhaps, a bias against spreading these investments too thinly.

In purely interaction terms, our bias towards communicating in pairs also speaks to the seriality of attention and to the particularly demanding needs of communicative action. Even in group interaction, we often attend to individual members one at a time. For one, it's easier to pay attention to what's going on if there is only one other person on which to focus. We can assess that person's disposition, mood, and intentions-in general, their availability-more easily when the complications introduced by group dynamics are absent. Obtaining high levels of trust, intimacy, affection-these too are simplified in paired interaction. As is obtaining the positive stroke that comes with interacting with a person whose focus is on you; there's no other with whom to compete.

Dyadic correspondence, along series of reference-response interactions, forms the basis on which these paired relations are built. Media, for some obvious reasons, are better suited to dyadic communication than any other. Presence can be communicated in two directions much better than in any number greater than two. Group presence requires a level of real time monitoring that is virtually impossible with any kind of existing technology. And without this monitoring, the rules of turn-taking are difficult to instantiate and follow. Mediation of group encounters is thus far more prone to stumbles and falls, to misunderstandings created by not knowing who is addressing whom about what, and with what intentions. No, it's far easier to interact with any level of grace over a two-way connection.

Two issues (of course) come from the privileged pair. The first concerns the medium's ability to pass the complete range of dyadic interaction. No medium is capable of such a thing. The phone, in fact, comes closest and is in wont for no improvement due to its already high degree of effectiveness. It permits of no eavesdropping, leaves no artifact, and in its manner of privileging the voice and the ear, lends itself to the intimacy of dyadic interaction. The second issue raises a question, and an interesting one. Do connective media like the internet, good as they are at re-routing conversation and propagating various forms of talk create new opportunities for non-paired communication? Or to phrase it differently, do new media produce new forms of interaction, forms that perhaps enjoy some popularity for the very structural constraints of paired communication that they don't do very well? This would be to suggest that there are times when we would rather not be subject to the high degree of attention expected of paired interactions. And that perhaps the binding that's possible between two people is what a group larger than two wants to escape. Why not? It's only relatively recently that our culture invented such high-pressure commitments as the nuclear family and love marriage. Perhaps we deserve an escape from the expectations they place on us.