Thursday 11 February 2016

Online Intersubjectivity and Constraint

Face-to-face conversations are different things from online conversations. Today I had an interesting conversation about conversation. I could look into the eyes of the person I was talking to and try to gauge what was happening in their 'inner world'. Each utterance I made carried with it a set of expectations as to how the person I was talking to would respond. If a response surprised me too much, I discovered I found it difficult to formulate another utterance - there were a couple of awkward silences! These moments were the most interesting for me. I found that I had to reflexively adjust my set of expectations in quite a fundamental way. I found I needed space to do this, and sometimes the intensity of a face-to-face exchange is not the most conducive to this kind of reflexivity.

Online, now, writing my blog, I think I can do it better. Moreover, I feel the need to do it. There's something about blogging which helps to resolve intellectual tension: it may be a kind of masturbation (which worries me sometimes).

Part of the discussion today concerned the we-relations that Schutz talks about. Fundamentally, the question is, Does being part of an online community constitute a 'we relation'? In Schutz, the pure we-relation is exclusively focused on the face-to-face interaction. Central to the pure we-relation is the shared flow of time: through this flow of time, “the reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together” occurs.

Modern technology provides new ways of accessing a 'vivid simultaneity': video is the most obvious example. New real-time technologies are continually emerging on the back of websocket technology. There is also a kind of vivid simultaneity in Facebook and Twitter - except that it extended across a span of time. Where's the common factor between these different kinds of activity? And what are the phenomenological differences between them?

Facebook and Twitter are not quite the same as Schutz's rather remote "world of contemporaries" (the term he uses to describe human relations with people who are real and alive but not present in front of us). In exploring the common ground of these phenomena, I am driven to the conclusion that it is the constraints of communication which matter. And yet much of the conversation today concerned the nature of constraint and absence, and whether constraint was merely a kind of causal power.

I once believed that constraint was a causal power, and argued about this with cyberneticians who disagreed. I now see constraints and causes as fundamentally different orientations in looking at the world - and the constraint orientation is helpful because it bypasses the problems of causal thinking including the inevitable tendency towards reductionism.

Face to face discussions are profoundly constrained by the myriad of sensory perceptions which are exchanged as we talk and look at each other. Choices of utterances, as with choices about anything, emerge through what can't be thought: forgetting and ignorance are often the drivers of decision. So to talk of a pure we-relation is to talk of a highly constrained situation where the constraints are simultaneous - one might call them synchronic. It is not necessarily the case that there are fewer constraints in an online conversation. But it is true that those constraints are less synchronic and more diachronic. A Twitter feed is the gradual exposure of diachronic constraint.

So can a we-relation exist online? Reframing the question, I would say the issue is whether a we-relation which rests of synchronic constraints is the same as a relation which rests on diachronic constraints. This is complicated because a synchronic we-relation is an inescapable constraint for both parties. A diachronic we-relation (if such a thing is possible) is dependent on different parties reading similar constraints in the flow of communications between them. There are fewer guarantees of effective 'tuning in'. However, if different kinds of media are used, including video, then there is more chance that exchanges can be more meaningful and insightful into the other's inner world.

Part of the condition for this relates to the constraints which contextualise the conversation in the first place. Peoples' bodies are constraints; their life histories are constraints; their emotions, socio-economic conditions, political views, and so on are all constraining. An online support group for people with particularly similar histories, personal tendencies, enthusiasms and so on contextualises interactions which are diachronically constraining, but which - because of shared common constraints beyond the immediate interaction - (maybe) can provide the conditions for mutual tuning-in. 

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