Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Spam and Schutz and Meaningless Snapchats

There's a brilliant exhibition at Manchester's @HOME_mcr at the moment. "I must first apologise..." by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige. Having collected spam emails for a number of years, Hadjithomas and Joreige put the words of those emails into the mouths of actors who were filmed reading pleas for money to be sent in various desperate circumstances. In the exhibition you first walk into a darkened room full of TV screens, each one showing a talking head. It's a cacophony of voices, and you have to get close to hear what each individual is saying. You look into their eyes, you hear words which we all have read in our inboxes every day, and somehow it all seems very different.

The closeness of the piece is what interests me, or rather the difference between reading text in an email, and staring into someone's eyes reading that text (albeit on a computer screen). They also try very innovative forms of projection where characters are projected onto a gauze-like translucent material which makes them appear to 'stand out'. It's impressive.

Since I've been thinking about intersubjectivity so much recently, the difference between text exhanges on a screen, time-based voice and video experiences, and real face-to-face contact resonates with deeper changes in the ways we interact. The online revolution has meant that our intimate face-to-face contact has become less (it's time-consuming and time-dependent and inefficient!), and remote text exchange has increased. But, beyond recent calls to limit the use of email in work (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-32622224), we haven't really been able to articulate how these forms of communication are different.

Alfred Schutz made a distinction between the 'face-to-face' situation as what he called the "pure we-relation" and the more remote "world of contemporaries". With regard to the former, he says:
"I experience a fellow-man directly if and when he shares with me a common sector of time and space. The sharing of a common sector of time implies a genuine simultaneity of our two streams of consciousness: my fellow-man and I grow older together. The sharing of a common sector of space implies that my fellow-man appears to me in person as he himself and none other. His body appears to me as a unified field of expressions, that is, of concrete symptoms through which his conscious life manifests itself to me vividly. This temporal and spatial immediacy are essential characteristics of the face-to-face situation." 
With regard to the latter he comments that:
"The stratification of attitudes by degrees of intimacy and intensity extends into the world of mere contemporaries, i.e., of Others who are not face-to-face with me, but who co-exist with me in time. The gradations of experiential directness outside the face-to-face situation are characterized by a decrease in the wealth of symptoms by which I apprehend the Other and by the fact that the perspectives in which I experience the Other are progressively narrower."
It would appear then, that there is simply 'more information' in the face-to-face encounter. But what does that mean exactly? After all, information itself is an intersubjective phenomenon. The "variables" that we might identify as distinctions between face-to-face and remote communications, for example, body language, gaze, tone of voice and so on, are all themselves categories of experience only accessible to us because we live in a world of others.

Recently, I've begun to look at this differently. Schutz's phrase "the wealth of symptoms" is carefully chosen because it doesn't implicate information directly. Rather it says there are distinctions that we might agree between us. In that process of agreement of distinctions, something constrains us to the point that we can say "this is the gaze... this is the body language..." and so on. The constraint is the "not-variable" - the thing which lies outside the identified property. "Not-variables" have a different kind of combinatorial logic to variables. I suspect that Schutz's intersubjective differences between the face-to-face and the world of contemporaries is an interaction of different constraints or "not-variables". In face-to-face settings, there are more constraints than there are in remote settings.  The way we tune into each other depends on the way we recognise the constraints bearing upon each other.

Schutz's insight had one of its most powerful expressions in his love of music. His paper, "Making music together" is a remarkable account of the way that music and musicians communicate without any kind of reference. I am fascinated by the analytical component of this, which is why I'm messing around exploring the interactions of different redundancies in musical performance at the moment (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/entropy-and-aesthetics-some-musical.html). The relationship between redundancy and constraint is fascinating because it is not only the redundancies of expression in face-to-face communication (gazes, body movements, voice tone, etc), but also the redundancies of repetition and habit. Whilst most social media provides a narrow form of communication, it is also built for redundancy and the expression of habit (think of endless Twitter messages about what you're having for breakfast, or  streams of Snapchats with little content).

As we communicate more remotely with one another, so we find new ways of generating redundancy in those communications where the redundancies of face-to-face would have once taken much greater precedence. What this might mean is that 'wasting time' online with endless Tweets about very little is much more significant than those who criticise it might think.


Chris said...

I have to say, Mark, that the Schutz quotes you cite at the start of this article are scarily my own thoughts

Mark Johnson said...

Who said you didn't have any references then?! ;-)