Friday, 13 May 2022

Dialogical Design

Thinking about thinking may be essential to dialogue. This isn't because dialogue is solipsistic - although an internal conversation might well be. It is more because dialogue involves the creation of uncertainty: either uncertainty within oneself or the social uncertainty which new utterances reflecting internal uncertainty create in communication. Dialogue is what we do to manage uncertainty, and thinking about thinking is how we generate uncertainty. Since thought and utterance are both processes now mediated by technology, this "thinking about thinking" is increasingly "thinking about technology". 

In his famous essay "The Question Concerning Technology", Heidegger sets out to make this point at the very beginning. Before we get to the rather complicated terminology that Heidegger uses to describe the phenomenon of technology ("enframing", etc), he makes a point relating to "thinking about thinking":

"In what follows we shall be questioning concerning technology. Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is a way of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary. We shall be questioning concerning technology, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to it. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology. When we can respond to this essence, we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds."

This is Heidegger in dialogue with himself in the context of uncertainty created by technology and existence. Irrespective of what we might think about his eventual conclusions, this is an supreme example of what it is to think. 

If we were to say that thinking about thinking is essential to dialogue, what would we say if there was utterance without thought about thought? Could this be dialogical? If not, why not?

At a recent online event, Rupert Wegerif made the point that fascism is not dialogical, and that those instances of fascist/extreme right-wing posting on Twitter weren't dialogical, while other interactions on Twitter almost certainly are. Is it the recursiveness of thought which distinguishes these things? 

An interesting question arose in this session as to whether TikTok was dialogical. TikTok appears to be the epitome of what Heidegger would call "falling" - the kind of thoughtless action that we engage in where the "readiness-to-hand" of the technology masks the world as it really is: like drone operators staring at computer screens and pressing "fire". We have the same experience in other forms of engagement with technology where we go into "autopilot" (driving is a good example). Is TikTok autopilot? 

My colleague Danielle Hagood objected to the idea that TikTok wasn't dialogical. Part of TikTok's  appeal lies in the counterpoint between the fallenness of the swiping of videos, and an inquiry into the behaviour of the algorithm. I think she's right - this inquiry into the behaviour of the machine, which is also an inquiry into our own thinking and reaction - is dialogical. 

I suspect it is a category mistake to talk about dialogue being facilitated by particular platforms or technological activities - one activity is dialogical and another isn't. That sounds rather like Theodor Adorno's criticism of pop music: that the only music that was worthwhile was that from the 2nd Viennese School. We (I) don't want to become a digital Adorno, sneering at all the fun people have with technology! All digital activities (all activities) provide the stimulus for thought to think about itself: it is this that makes them potentially dialogical. 

This is important when we consider conversation as an activity. Not all conversations are dialogues for exactly the same reason that not all technological activities are dialogues. Rupert's point about fascism is spot-on here. Fascism is fascism because it has no reflexivity on its own thought. To live in a non-dialogical world is to be both prevented from reflecting on our own thought (through fear) and/or to be prevented from uttering inner doubts in public which contributes to the external uncertainty. We see both these conditions in Russia at the moment. Of course, the Russian state proclaims a rationale for what it is doing - but it's manipulation of the media is characterised by the generation of non-questions in the public domain - often concerning the use of nuclear weapons. It admits (and permits) no genuine articulation of uncertainty.

This anti-dialogical condition is designed. So could we design an opposite condition: a condition wherein thought is encouraged to think about itself? 

I think the answer to this question is "yes", but I think there is no way of doing without this entailing a reflection on technology. Thought is inseparable from technology - from the medium, the technique, the technics and the politics. The condition for dialogue is a condition where the uncertainties that must be generated by dialogical processes are generated by unpicking the technological domain as much as the psychological and social domain. 

We need to think of a new kind of technology which can support this: something where the action taken with a tool leads to reflection on the operation of that tool and its relation to thought. This may be where the current drive for digitalization in education takes us. I'd be tempted to call it "Second-order educational technology"

4 comments:

Steve Watson said...

Thinking can only ever be about thinking, consciousness is self-referential and operationally closed. Similarly with the system of communication, it is self-referential and operationally closed. However communication is in the environment of consciousness and vice versa, they disturb each other but remain unknown to each other but share language to structure the noise that they throw at each other.

Fascism as totalitarianism (and Stalinsism) are dialogic. Communication takes place (thinking and therefore reflexivity takes place), it must therefore be dialogic.

What totalitarianism does is dedefferenitiates functional systems of politics, law and economics handing all decisions to the dictator. It is medievalisation process or modernisation process. To stabilise this unstable totalitarian system 'others' were constructed as an enemy and subject to genocide. Totalitarianism is a reaction to modernity as functional differentiated society.

Mark Johnson said...

I think it's interesting to reflect on Luhmann's statements here because they derive from Maturana and Varela. The argument that M&V had with Luhmann was that he had misapplied the biological idea of autopoiesis to communication. Did Luhmann create a meta-biology?

Then there is the question of autopoiesis itself in biology. Are cells operationally-closed, structurally-determined autopoietic systems? If that now no longer fits the science, do we need to look again at what Luhmann said about communication?

I think the answer to both these questions is yes. That's not to take away the genius of Luhmann, but it is to turn it into a question rather than an answer.

Dialogue is in part physiological. There is a need to moderate the androgens which might lead to fight or flight, and to become more porous and less defensive in our relation with others. This never happens in fascism. This also has a hormonal/epigenetic component. That is based on communication at a cellular level long before utterances are selected (indeed it is part of the selection mechanism)


Steve Watson said...

Luhmann used M&Vs idea, but instead of the biochemical elements - he de-ontologised and de-tempororalised molecular elements replacing a phenomenological conception of meaning following Husserl. This is not then an analogy of biological systems but a general theory of autopoietic systems. Maturana and Varela accepted this.

Autopoieisis means that cells are closed but it does not require any structural determination, structures, as Maturana pointed out, are orthogonal to autopoiesis. I have not seen anything that claims otherwise, unless the assumption is made that autopoiesis leads to structural determination which it doesn't.

The answer to both questions is no, because autopoiesis has been misinterpreted.

Dialogue involves physiology. I don't think there is always a need to moderate androgens. I don't always feel frightened when talking to others. I don't think this process is excluded from fascism. Biological systems only communicate through meaning systems of consciousness and communication.

Mark Johnson said...

Do you have a reference for where Maturana accepted Luhmann?