Thursday, 9 July 2015

Alfred Schutz and Social Media

The effect of the explosion in communications technologies in recent years has been to increase the possibilities of the means of communicating. Individuals must select the appropriate means, the form of utterance and the meaning they wish to convey. Such selections have to be based on an understanding of the other’s capacity to effectively receive and interpret whatever meaning is intended in the communication. A hand-written note, a phone call, an email, a tweet, a Facebook post, a Snapchat picture, a blog entry, a Skype message or a YouTube video are all different selections of the medium of communication which were not available less than a decade ago. The choice of medium brings constraints on the form of utterance, and the way in which the meaning of the utterance might be interpreted. Clearly there are phenomenological differences between these different forms of communication: yet there is a tendency to argue that what appears to be the same communication carried on different media are ‘functionally equivalent’. The doctrine of functional equivalence has been the mantra of the technocratising tendency which, on grounds of economic efficiency, closes the village post-office and replaces its “communication services” with an online form, or deems academics to be interchangeable according to their individual H-indexes. Indeed, the language of ‘services’ washes over phenomenological differences between the particulars of material manifestations. In Heidegger’s terms, this is ‘enframing’: not just by the technologies themselves, but by the language which is used to describe the 'affordances' (another linguistic flattening) of technologies as ‘services’. Heidegger was aware that in discussing the phenomenology of technology, the real issue was the phenomenology of language. What emerges in the technological doctrine of ‘functional equivalence’ is similar in spirit to the Nazi Gleichschaltung - the ‘bringing into line’ which played an important role in the mechanism of state control in the 1930s, and in which Heidegger played an active role as Rector of the University of Freiberg.

In examining the differences between different forms of communication media, we can consider the alternative phenomenological approach to Heidegger’s existentialism which extends, rather than dismisses, the transcendentalism of Husserl. The principal exponent of this is Alfred Schutz whose focus lay of human-human relations and who made a connection between Husserl’s intersubjectivity and Weber’s sociology. Weber, in defining sociology as “a science concerning itself with the interpretive understanding of social action and thereby with a causal explanation of its course and consequences” invites the critique that his articulation of ‘interpretive understanding’ (verstehen) lacks a comprehensive theory of human intersubjectivity. Schutz saw Husserl’s attempt to describe intersubjectivity as a significant corrective in a comprehensive theory of mind that could be united with a rich theory of social life. However, Schutz felt that Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity was deficient since Husserl’s main focus in considering intersubjectivity is one-to-one close relations, and ignores the broader dimension of the “world of others”. This world of others, according to Schutz, involves a range of different kinds of intersubjective relations, from intimate face-to-face relations, to distance relations with ‘contemporaries’.

Husserl’s concept of intersubjectivity already contained many of the ingredients that Schutz developed, including the importance of the ‘revealing of the inner flux of time’ in interpersonal communications and the nature of empathy. However, Schutz extends Husserl’s notion by making a distinction between the face-to-face communication, distant communication with ‘contemporaries’, as well as a richer description of the lifeworld of others, past and present. He often uses educational situations to illustrate his ideas. For example, he describes the experiences of a lecture:
“In listening to a lecturer [...] we seem to participate immediately in the development of his stream of thought. But – and this point is obviously a decisive one – our attitude in doing so is quite different from that we adopt in turning to our own stream of thought by reflection. We catch the other’s thought in its vivid presence and not modo preterito; this is, we are it as a “now” and not as a “just now”. The other’s speech and our listening are experienced as a vivid simultaneity. Now he starts a new sentence, he attaches word to word; we do not know how the sentence will end, and before its end we are uncertain what it means. The next sentence joins the first, paragraph follows paragraph; now he has expressed a thought and passes to another, and the whole is a lecture among other lectures and so on. It depends on  circumstances how far we want to follow the development of his thought. But as long as we do so we participate in the immediate present of the other’s thought.”

The principal key-words in this passage are ‘vivid simultaneity’. Schutz, like Heidegger, sees the flow of time as a fundamental part of being. However, Schutz’s ‘time’, like Husserl’s, is part of inner personal life, not an assumed ontological universe through which being is thrown. In his own conception Schutz elaborated Husserl’s ideas with the “stream of consciousness” of William James, and Bergson's philosophy of time. The issue is profound because Schutz cannot see how human communication is possible without our being able to share in the ‘vivid simultaneity’ of inner life in the context of a shared environment:

“we could not be persons for others, even not for ourselves, if we could not find with the others a common environment as the counterpart of the intentional interconnectedness of our conscious lives. This common environment is established by comprehension, which in turn, is founded upon the fact that the subjects reciprocally motivate one another in their spiritual activities.” (On phenomenology and social relations, p165)

Schutz’s approach overcomes the transcendental ascetism of Husserl, for whom whilst intersubjectivity and the lifeworld are essential components in the structuring of consciousness, there is ultimately an individual transcendental consciousness at the centre. Schutz’s focus is placed on the dynamics between consciousnesses – the fundamental preconditions for communication and social life. I shall discuss later Schutz’s influence on American sociology rested on this profound understanding of communication which provided a platform for Talcott Parsons (somewhat to Schutz’s unease) and later Niklass Luhmann, to make a connection between functionalist theories of communication and phenomenological insight.

At the heart of Schutz’s theory is the idea that face-to-face communication involves a mutual ‘tuning-in’ relationship, where exists “the reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together”. It is through this process that “only within this experience does the other’s conduct become meaningful to the partner tuned in on him”. Bodily expressions are as important as verbal utterances: “the other’s body and its movements can be and are interpreted as a field of expression of events within his inner life”.

In recent years, our opportunities to investigate Schutz’s ideas in the field of education have been expanded with the increasing use of video technologies and other real-time forms of communication under the umbrella term of 'social media'. Schutz based his thinking about intersubjectivity around the experience of music, where the flow of time and processes of communication between players and listeners provided his stimulus for asking "how does music communicate?" - especially since it is devoid of representational content. Whilst videoed lectures are not devoid of representational content they nevertheless provide a similar phenomena of time passing which ties together Schutz’s interest in the revealing of inner time of the lecturer and his concern for ‘mutual tuning-in’. Among the increasingly diverse array of technologies for education, distinctions can be made between the forms of communication with ‘contemporaries’ who are distant from us (for example, the use of text media in email), media which use text, but which do so in a synchronous fashion (for example, text-based real-time chat), media which use pictures and text in either asynchronous or synchronous fashion (e.g. Snapchat, image boards, etc), media which offer opportunities to communicate in artificial shared environments (e.g. Second life, multiplayer online games) and so on.

Schutz describes a ‘spectrum of vividness’ of these experiences. He argues that the difference between the face-to-face world and what he calls the “world of contemporaries” is one where
“The first steps beyond the realm of immediacy are marked by a decrease in the number of perceptions I have of the other person and a narrowing of the perspectives within which I view him. At one moment I am exchanging smiles with my friend, shaking hands with him and bidding him farewell. At the next moment he is walking away. Then from the far distance I hear a faint good-by, a moment later I see a vanishing figure give a last wave, and then he is gone.”

What Schutz refers to as a “decreasing number of perceptions” suggests that each of the sensory channels which carry information signals which are gradually degraded with distance. However, for each ‘channel’ (if such a thing might be said to exist) there is a complex relationship between what is deemed to be informative about the other, and what acts as a context for the interpretation of meaning. Schutz suggests, in line with Husserl, that what is communicated are expectations which reflect the horizons of meaning of the individuals concerned. Schutz doesn’t inspect the nature of the information which is carried on these channels, although there is an implicit assumption that relations to signs and symbols in the shared lifeworld serve to coordinate understanding and the tuning-in process.

In comparing different forms of social media, there are different ‘lifeworlds’ which provide a common context: this is, after all, the aim of most technology designers. Unless a sense of a shared environment can be created, then communication becomes improbable.  Yet the phenomenology of the lifeworld is much more complex than the mere appearances on a screen: the world of contemporaries is not exclusively bound by the contemporaries who attempt to communicate with each other. It is a world of different institutional contexts, different political contexts, different power relations and so on. Each individual is positioned in a lifeworld where the mandating of particular technologies will carry certain relations of rights, duties, obligations and so on. In face-to-face encounters, Schutz reminds us of the ways in which through the inner flux of experiences, such rights, duties and obligations can be inferred through simply looking at each other and ‘tuning in’. Remote groups are a different story and inevitably other mechanisms which cannot reveal the inner flux of experience, but might otherwise seek to persuade or coerce behaviour, have to operate if communication is to be successful. Given this, we can ask “how is educational communication to occur if we do not have an understanding of the inner world of each other?”

Schutz’s theory sheds light on why it is that power relations, political structures, social status and so on become important in education. Because of the inability to 'tune-in' to the real flux of lived experience of others that would be possible in face-to-face communication, a different kind of shared lifeworld has to be created so as to coordinate action. The shared lifeworld of distant communicants has to become one where implicit threats of scarcity and status are made: the motivation for entering the lifeworld of social software is the fear of not being "in the loop", of getting "left behind", of one's professional status being put at risk through the inability to keep up. The common lifeworld of the "blogerati" is a world of implicit fear. 

Whilst this sounds less than attractive, it is precisely this manufacture of a shared lifeworld of implicit threat of scarcity which underpins educational activity. Most teachers understand their job as one of designing educational experiences, and (just as with social media) this activity could not be achieved were it not for the mutual understanding of the teachers and their students within a shared context. Designing education means anticipating likely events. Schutz believes this can only happen if we have an understanding one another. Of course, most teachers also know that the understanding of one another only occurs once the educational program has started and the teacher can look into the eyes of their students. In other words, when designs ought to have been completed and all eventualities anticipated. Because of this, Schutz argues that the process of design is necessarily an incomplete process:
“Like all other anticipations, the rehearsed future action also has gaps which only the performance of the act will fill in. Therefore the actor will only retrospectively see whether his project stood the test of proved a failure…”

Teaching, as design, is always an active process of experiment. Teachers may have some prior idea of the experience of their learners: if not of individual apprehension and ability, of the organisational and institutional situation that learners find themselves in. It is with this organisational situation that they intervene. In a face-to-face situation, the common objects of the classroom situation are not just the physical artefacts like textbooks, interactive whiteboards, chairs and desks, but also the implicit rules, rights and obligations of the educational setting: all of these become part of the lifeworld which the teacher can create so as to facilitate communication. Designing for learning means intervening in the shared environment situation such that the claims a teacher might make about the purpose, scope, context and content of a learning design will be acknowledged (and hopefully supported) by those subject to it. Measurement of the learning experience is a measurement of the extent to which those attending a lesson designed in such a way uphold the propositions put to them by their teacher. Poor learning experiences are, in this sense, miscommunications: the teachers assertions about scope, purpose, context and content are not upheld by the students.

Teachers make declarations about their subject’s content, about the university procedures for assessment, about the rules of the class and the form of lectures, practical tasks and assignments. Teachers know that common constraints operate on their learners: they all, usually, want to pass the course; they all know that assignments have to be done on time to a satisfactory standard, and so on. Educational convention dictates expectations in learners that (for example) lessons start on time, that they will receive feedback from their work. What is the experience to be subject to these declarations? What is the experience of making them?

Leaners are remote from teachers, and the teacher's knowledge about their expectations is aided by the presence of the institutional structures within which students are forced to operate. There is a clear difference in the experience of face-to-face intimate exchange between a teacher and a learner, and the so-called 'sage on the stage' lecturer at the front of the class. Schutz makes a distinction here between we-relations and thou-relations. He argues that “in the face-to-face situation, directness of experience is essential, regardless of whether our apprehension of the Other is central or peripheral and regardless of how adequate our grasp of him is. I am still “Thou-oriented” even to the man standing next to me in the subway.”

Transformations in the common environment will have an impact on personal experience. Changes to the environment which would be deemed to make things ‘better’ become possible. The effect that such environmental changes have are, in Husserlian terminology, transformations of the ‘horizon of meaning’ of each individual. However, just as there is a phenomenology of the transformation of the environment and its impact on experience, so there is a phenomenology of judgements about the effectiveness of any transformation. To say that a particular intervention ‘works’ or has ‘improved’ the learning experience depends on a methodological meta-environment where the shared environment is the analysis of statistics. Many aspects of experience become overlooked at this level. When examining the experience of learners, there are measurements that can be made which can be interpreted as measurements of expectations. Such data becomes, of course, the subject of experiences in the minds of designers, politicians, etc: they contribute to the weight of ‘evidence’ that leads to a reinforcement of the original status function of the object with the declaration that ‘x works’. But the statement “x works” is a statement about what others might expect. Around these status declarations, there are points of dispute because “x” never works for everyone. The recursive nature of these different levels of relations between humans: the face-to-face relations, and the relations over distance inevitably mean that there is a phenomenological recursiveness which exposes power structures. If distance relations are determined not by authentic sharing of 'flux of inner life' but by the creation of lifeworld of threat and scarcity, then the authenticity of individual experience is constrained in various ways.

The lifeworld and the revelation of routine and habit

The importance of constraint in social relations places Schutz's interpretation of the way individual inner life is shared in a new light. For Schutz, the communicating of experiences is indicative of a fundamental “interpersonal subjectivity", and yet he never articulates what is entailed in the 'sharing' of community:
“I speak of another person as within reach of my direct experience when he shares with me a community of space and a community of time. He shares a community of space with me when he is present in person and I am aware of him as such, and, moreover, when I am aware of him as this person himself, this particular individual, and of his body as the field upon which play the symptoms of his inner consciousness.”

Schutz's emphasis on the passing of time in interpersonal relations suggests that 'sharing' the flux of time is the shared experience of another’s routine, repetition and habit rather than the concrete signals which refer to specific aspects of those experiences. In information terms, these repeated aspects of habit are effectively "redundant information", superfluous ideas – dreams of new projects which will forever be unfulfilled, remote considerations of unlikely possibilities, and so on. Redundancy represents the unrealised organisational options of individuals and societies. Redundancies are the "ground" upon which the "figure" of meaningful interaction is produced. In human consciousness, redundancy frames practice. 

To see Schutz's tuning-in as the interaction and overlapping of individual redundancies (routines and habits), deepens an explanatory framework which makes the distinction between different forms of interpersonal online engagement. When people come together in classrooms there are natural overlaps between the redundancies of expectation concerning the situation that people engage in. In the face-to-face environments of school and university, some aspects of ritualised practice are codified in the form of timetables, curricula and assessments. Many distance-based communications technologies concentrate on conveying text-based signals with redundancies stripped out for efficiency (email). Some forms of social media retain redundant information, particularly video. More recent forms of social media interactions encourage explicitly 'pointless' interactions, in which redundancies dominate: Snapchat, Vine, and Twitter all encourage play with redundancies within tight constraints. Moreover, the addictive and repetitive nature of these social technologies forms its own temporal redundancy.

In these cases, there is a different kind of tuning-in to one another. The face-to-face situation presents a balance between the overlapping of redundancies and the tuning-in to one another and the conveying of information. The social media experiments currently underway around us are helping us to explore the dynamics of communication situations where there is little redundancy and lots of information, and where there is little information and lots of redundancy. We have yet to find a way of using our technologies effectively such that they 'listen' in the way we are capable of listening to each other in face-to-face encounters.

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