Thursday 21 June 2012

Togetherness, Technology and "Tools for Conviviality"

I have recently focused on issues of 'togetherness' and 'conviviality' in my posts, highlighting problems in current conceptions of technology which talk of 'social networks' or 'online communities' which are not social and certainly not communities (see But it is not just a cosy idea of people being together that I am after. I see it really as a re-awakening of the realities of human experience, and an acknowledgement of what we find most meaningful in life. I am most interested in those issues which are foremost at the end of life: what do people worry about? How do they make sense of the briefness of life and the inevitability of its end? My experience (and the experience of many other people) tells me that it is love and relationships which are foremost in the thoughts of those for whom death is an imminent prospect. But (to exploit a play on words), death,I believe, is also immanent in life. It is the fundamental constraint or absence that weighs on us all.

But really we have to consider what is meaningful in the first place, and what might be in meaningfulness to make it meaningful. Here, I have considered the view of meaning as a "structuring of anticipations", and that when we find something meaningful it is because at the moment of perceiving something meaningful, we perceive a change in our possibilities to act which is determined by the extent to which we have confidence in the consequences of our action. It is precisely at the moment that two people declare their love for each other and have some confidence in the consequences of touching each other that the meaning is most intense. But it may be a mistake to think of this horizon of expectations (as Husserl calls it - I'm very grateful to Leydesdorff for making me aware of this literature) as some sort of logical network of possibilities. It is more like a logical realisation of the form of something.

A work of art may be meaningful to us because it makes us aware of its form, and in so doing, reveals a relationship of possibilities that allows us to anticipate our experiences as we look upon it. Whilst we may be surprised by what we see (and the greater the art, the greater the surprise), we are nonetheless ready for the surprise because we understand the form of the territory that we are inhabiting. This is, I think, because what we become aware of are the shared constraints between the artist's intention and our own: anticipation comes from a realisation of shared constraint, and by implication, so does meaning.

It is the same in love as it is in shared activity like musical performances. The score, for example, operates as a shared constraint - each person knows the limitations within which they act. That means they know the limitations of everyone else they act with. That means they can anticipate the actions of  those around them. This is where I think such performances become deeply meaningful to us.

One of the problems with technology is that it is difficult to establish shared constraints among a large group of people. They might look at the learning system or the social network, but then again, they might browse somewhere else, or do something else. Nobody is going to say "that's not within the rules"..  they are free to do what they want. But with this freedom comes atomisation of the individual - each individual operates in their own universe. Consequently the world is difficult to anticipate and can appear meaningless. Shallow forms of anticipation take over - expedient action which through manipulation of existing social structures can at least be guaranteed some predictable outcome. (So when I post this post, I will get an increase in hits on my blog). But such things are only superficial and skate over deeper issues of human existence.

Using technology to establish conviviality may provide a way of getting around this. On the whole, we do not have what Illich called "tools for conviviality". We have super-powerful tools for amplifying the individual, which in turn effectively atomise the individual. Tools for conviviality are tools for the sharing of absences, so that those using such tools are collectively aware of what is not there for each other. In so doing, they become more aware of the hidden absent forces which structure the form of hiuman engagements. In being aware of that, their  ability to anticipate, and their ability to identify meaning in the experience follows.

Most online tools concern themselves with presence. They positivise being. Convivial tools negate presence - they privilege non-being. Illich's argument was that convivial tools were very simple: a spade or a hammer. The point is that with such objects, what is absent is much more dominant than what is present. Yet it is the instinct of software developers (particularly) to throw everything into their tools: to positivise being in the usage of their tools. There is little acknowledgement of absence. But with simple tools, absences can be explored and shared. And it is in the sharing and being made aware of absences that convivial and meaningful experiences may be established.