Sunday, 23 January 2011

@SherryTurkle: On Remediatized Social Interaction and Technology as Scapegoat


Okay guys: so this will probably be very long and bad. This post illustrates the purpose of this blog, which is for me to write first reactions and thoughts in a disorganized way that can get feedback from you, my lovely reader, without fear of being graded. Please forgive the poor format, misguided or contradictory arguments etc: this is me ranting ^_^ Enjoy


I was watching the January 17th Colbert Report and was quite intruiged by his guest Sherry Turkle. She is an MIT professor of social science and most of her work regards how technology is changing social interaction. I was as intrigued as I was put off by many of her points, and this is just a reaction to that interview. Word of warning: I’m not an MIT professor nor have I even read Ms Turkle’s book (but I will!).

PART I - Background

Losing Appreciation and Each Other:

Turkle argues that technology is driving us apart and dumbing down the general discourse. The logic goes (here I am filling in the logic for her, I’ll let you know how accurate this is once I read her book) that technology allows communication to be broken up and to take the form of many short messages, rather than more lengthy discourse. Coupled with the instant availability of the communication, we initiate communication at our convenience rather than whenever we happen to see someone (because, after all, they are “always there”). In order to ensure a response, we make our queries short and easily answerable, gaining instant gratification when our reply is received quickly.

This leads to a disjoint, ADD style of communication and interaction, where no one is capable of asking questions that demand more time to answer, and where even in face-to-face conversations we let ourselves be interrupted and multi-task our attention.

In the interview on the Colber Report, Turkle brings up the example of parents who text at the dinner table, leaving their children desperate for parental attention.

She also intimates at political discourse. Obviously overrun by sound bites and glib questions regarding the titles of bills, the asking of questions that take longer than 140 characters to answer has, in many ways, disappeared from our society. I love Colbert’s point here that sips can add up to a gulp, and there’s an interesting point of truth I think in both arguments, but more on this in a bit.

Turkle responds by talking about the performative and presentational aspects of online communication, which, she says, inhibits other (she implies “more honest”) levels of communication. Colbert nails her: “Hey! We all prepare a face for the faces that we meet” but then opens himself up for retaliation by taking the standpoint that using the coolest new technology is as worthy an aim as social interaction, and the interview ends on a more conciliatory note.


I’m currently reading a very cool book by Philip Auslander called “Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture.” It’s a fairly academic performance studies text, but definitely worth a read. Written a decade ago, it examines how performance and our ideas of live performances have changed as a result of the introduction of new technologies.

Central to his analysis is the idea of “remediatization”: roughly the process by which art and communication alters when it changes media. You obviously would view a movie and a painting of the holocaust in different ways, and it is equally true that we view acting differently now than we did a century ago due to the fact that our primary method of viewing performance has changed media, from the live to the screen.

I think that it’s important to view social interaction in the digital age in the context of remediatization and the spread of mass-media.

Auslander outlines a very rough pattern of progress for new technologies, whereby the new media (TV) originally models itself on an older, known media (theatre), then discovers how to exploit the potential and limitations of the media to create a new language of that media (cross-over shots, racking focus, etc) and lastly alters how and why old media functions (theatrical performance has become matrixized, etc).


I think that a very clear analogy exists with direct human interaction and tele-presence interaction. Just as live performance was changed first slightly by film and then dramatically by television, so too has social interaction been changed by the introduction of telephones and more recently the internet.

Turkle frames her arguments on this assumption that a change in media changes phenomonology, which necessarily changes the import. I will expand that to the extent that I agree with it, explore the extent to which I think that it is not true, and lastly I will (hopefully) wrap up with some amazingly insightful and gratifying synthesis of the two J

Remediatization of Social Interaction:

Telephones clearly model their interaction on face to face human interactions. You greet, and (hopefully) have a nice chat, than you say goodbye and you leave. The internet came along and at first communication modeled itself on the physical analogues of “snail-mail” (e-mail), “chatting” (instant messages) and “publishing” (web-authoring). That these forms of communication were modeled on these physical analogues is inescapably evident in the language used to characterize it (as I hope the above demonstrates very clearly).

But just as television evolved a separate life from its physical analogue, so too has the social web. Blogs such as this one, then twitter; social networking sites like xanga, then myspace, then facebook; and media sharing technologies such as bit torrent and youtube have seen a steady march in a new direction, away from easy physical analogies. And just as our approach changes, the way we think about the interaction changes too. So much is evident in our language: web-authoring seems an archaic term though it’s only a decade old. Why? Because we no longer think about blogging and posting in terms of the publishing analogy any longer. They have developed beyond the analogy and have meaning of their own.

The remediatization of publishing, for example, is also easy to see. James Bridle, chef Maureen Evans, comic character Roland Hedley, historians such as Sayre Van Young and Alan Beard (the list goes on and on) have all written books entirely in tweets. Even more fundamentally, I believe and agree with critics who argue that our attention has been fractured and that our discourse has been dumbed.

Technology as Scapegoat:

But to what extent are these changes and others the result of technology? To what extent are they the product of other cultural and social factors? To what extent is technology just enabling us to do what human’s would naturally have done from the beginning? To what extent are these explanations even distinguishable?

What frustrated me about Sherry Turkle’s interview is that I got from her the sense that I get from many analysts and critics of the role of technology in modern social life. For many critics, the internet and the process of remediatization that our culture is going through provides an easy and convenient explanation for much of the social change that we are seeing today (the good and the bad). It is, however, essential to remember that the process of remediatization is a historical process, with analogues in other time periods of which the present day is a continuation. It is easy to view the last decade in an internet bubble (if you’ll excuse the pun) but ignoring the social changes that the telegraph, telephone, etc brought is to not see today’s changes in context.

Even more important to that context is to remember that society changes even without new technologies! While technology has played a huge role in the fracturing of our attention span, I highly doubt that rises in clinical ADD rates or the clutter of the evening news are solely caused by our social shift in attitude on attention. The world continues to change and evolve, and to claim that only one thing is causing that one other thing is just plain ridiculous.

To make this more concrete, let’s pick apart the examples Turkle gave in her interview with Colbert. She explained that facebook profiles are performances of the self, rather than an accurate reflection of the self. As Colbert (who I’m sure knows performance studies better than I) so wonderfully pointed out: the implication that we aren’t always performing is total bull crap. I could go on for ages, but take it from those of us who study the ontology of performance: all human interaction is a performance. period. Whether it's online or in person, that changes nothing.

She also gave the example of parents texting during dinner, which causes children to feel their parents’ attention is divided away from them. This is certainly a sad example that I am sure happens across America, and I am not about to defend parents that do this: for the love of your children, spend some fricken time with them!

However, I do not think that this is a new trend at all. I don’t have statistics in front of me, but I would be highly surprised if texting during dinner were anywhere close to as common as not eating dinner together at all. With the average hours per year worked going up in America and more parents working or bringing their work home with them, this trend of children feeling that their parents’ attentions are elsewhere is nothing new, nor is it even primarily caused by technology.

While it may be trite or silly, take the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” which I recently saw (the main character is a Northwestern alumnus!! Woo woo!). Anyone who knows anything about American culture knows that we’ve been getting more stressed, and have had more and more expected of us as citizens every year, particularly as students and recent graduates. “Devil” had iMac’s and iPhones everywhere, but as far as social themes the movie may as well have been from the 80’s (when remediatization of computer technologies was not a thing).

My point is that while technology does change things, for many others it just enables trends that have been happening for a long time. To view these trends only in the terms of the last 10 or even 20 years and to conflate technological effect and remediatization cause blinds us to the reality of our cultural changes.

Mass Socialization and the Future of Interpersonal Relationships:

So, Alex: (I hear you ask) If you’re so smart and view things so much clearer than others, what do you think is going on, and where is it going? Well… first off: I’m not an MIT psychologist, and this is really my first time thinking about these things. I don’t have clear ideas or firm beliefs, only vague ones. Here goes my attempt at clarifying some of them:

Television has allowed us to view performances of the highest caliber. For whatever you may say about the lack of liveness, film and television actors are far better than the actors that most people would be able to see in person (unless you’re very lucky and live in New York or London or go to a school like Northwestern =P) In the same way, technology means that we can interact with a wider and wider circle of people, and pick friends that fit us better than the people that may be physically near us. This means that internet-only friends are only going to become more common. The lack of physical presence does lose something very real and significant and I think that we are only starting to come to terms with this. If other media forms are of any guidance, what will happen is a language will evolve entirely within the context of the new media that will seek to replace and extend what was lost. I feel that emoticons are the start of that, but certainly not the end.

The injection of internet communication into personal relationships too is a significant change: one of convenience. Just as DVR's allow you to watch TV on your own schedule, so do phones allow you to communicate with others at a time and in a way that is convenient for you. This, ironically, does isolate us from each other, by allowing individuals' schedules to diverge, and enabling people to spend less time together. The good news is that this means you spend less time with people you dislike, and can spend more with people you do. Turkle points out that with Facebook divulging our secrets willy-nilly much of the basis of intimacy is lost: you no longer have secrets that you can share with only those that are closest to you. In a world of free information, and the freedom to not spend time with people you don't like, it will become physical access (spatially and temporally) that I believe will become the basis of new intimacy.

Nothing is lost that something else is gained, and just as a new media never replaces old: traditional communication will of course continue. I’m posting this long piece, phones will continue to be phones in some respect and chatting online is no different, needn’t be any less intellectual or profound, than a chat at a Parisian cafĂ© in 1910. Things like letter writing in the 1800’s grew to an art only out of necessity of the limitations of the technology: letters were slow and couldn’t be responded to, so they needed to contain much feeling and content as possible in each message. While this art form may be lost with instant communication, new art will grow out of the limitations of twitter, and emotional fulfillment _can_ be found in 160 characters.

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