Saturday, 5 January 2013

Is online communication communication?

Email discussions are often hopeless because they reveal little of the person behind the messages. This is particularly noticeable on forums - which are the dominant mode of communication in e-learning platforms, including MOOCs.

I believe that what we learn, we learn about each other. Because of this, text messages in a forum are a deficient means of learning anything because they reduce the 'whole person' to their textual utterances. There is an opposing position to mine that says "what we learn we learn about ourselves." This position too has its merits, but it seems rather too solipsistic to me, and potentially dangerous since the fundamental human acts of promising and of forgiving cannot involve just one person. Arendt argues:
“The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility──of being unable to undo what one has done──is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. Both faculties depend upon plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no man can forgive himself and no one can be bound by a promise made only to himself.” 
So to believe we only learn about ourselves is to say we forgive ourselves, and we validate our own promises. In the hands of a psychopath, this clearly is dangerous, and my biggest fear of this position is that it either directly leads to a self-validating fascism, or an idealism which becomes blinded to the potential for evil in the world - which similarly lets in the bad people.

I've been thinking more deeply about this need for other people in cognitive process. I think there is a determination of absence that takes place. Each utterance we make is a decision which is reached not just by what we can think, but by what we cannot think. Each utterance is a calculation based on our ability to coordinate and anticipate the direction of the communication, and consequently, our ability to anticipate the responses of those we converse with.  That means we have to determine the thinkable and the unthinkable of other people too. Indeed, I suspect that it is what we cannot think that has the greatest bearing on the decisions we take.

A discussion is a shared experience. Moves in the discussion depend on calculating the success of communications which entails anticipating what others will say (what Luhmann calls the double-contingencies of communication). Where the capacity to predict communications is hampered, and where one feels forced to utter something but unable to predict what will happen, confusion creates stress. This is the situation of a classic double-bind. Nothing is clearly demarcated, the absences of the other person (the unthinkables) cannot be determined, and consequently, their utterances cannot be anticipated, and we therefore have no grounds for making a decision ourselves.

For good conversation to take place, where each party learns something about the other, there needs to be the acknowledgement of some sort of "shared absence"; something that we both recognise we lack; something which demarcates the thinkable from the unthinkable in each of us. A conversation may then proceed to determine an aspect of that shared absence and establish a new concept. The learning about the other person is the acknowledgement and determination of what we both lack. A new concept transforms the world views of both participants. But this is an ideal situation.

Online it is hard to assess the absences of the other person. I can only judge their absences by taking decisions to make utterances which might elicit information about their absences. One way of doing this is to make assertions and see how the other person reacts to the assertion. Often in forums, however, the stakes of a communication are not high, and so assertions will tend to be ignored (which will of course tell us something about what's missing!)

If the stakes in online discussion are higher (e.g. if there is a threat to personal reputation in some way) then conversation may become unpleasant to the point that both parties seek a "way out". They cannot just stop communicating because they are caught in the double bind of the communication situation (needing to determine common absence but being deprived of the means to effectively do this). The stress and confusion of this situation will create complexities and difficulties in making communicative decisions - a situation that at the very least needs addressing in some way. One way out is to recognise that the absence which is shared is a "dislike of the present discussion". An agreement to differ is an identification of a "question" as the determination of an absence: we will in the final analysis agree that this absence is "is it x or is it y?". Such a new concept-question can offer some respite and an escape because the complex decision-trees can be reorganised with the new concept so as to lead to a mutual restructuring of expectations.

Face-to-face contact gives much more information about absences that online media. The eyes reveal far more about an absence than words. In fact technology presents its own absences. This may be what can make it seductive, since what is missing in the technology can only be substituted by the user. In this way, an attenuated communications medium does indeed lead us to reflect on ourselves, on our own absences. We might think we identify the absences of others, but these may in fact be detected in ourselves. But it can makes technologically-mediated communication narcissistic.

This makes me think about my argument that an online community is not a real community (see Is online communication real communication? How do we distinguish our understanding of communication from our understanding of media?

Maybe thinking about absences can help us grasp the varieties of non-neutrality of media in communication.


Scott said...

I think you're coming up against the limits of the term "community" when looking at communication practice.

As I was reading this I was thinking of a community I'm part of which communicates almost exclusively using text messages, which is Apache. This is a large, highly productive organisation with a high level of cohesion and productivity.

However, its not the same kind of community as an online course purports to be. I think also something that Apache does is reflect on its norms and reinforce these with a lot of meta-discussions to ensure communication remains effective. Having shared source code as a social object may also play a role in focussing communication, though thats probably something course materials ought to do too.

This makes me think of the taxonomy of communities - communities of purpose, of circumstance, of practice, of interest, of inquiry etc. Do communication channels need to carry different meta-information in these different community forms?

Mark Johnson said...

Apache is interesting. There's a shared object (a shared absence?) That would fit with your 'communities of purpose'. What it creates is a double-description between the messages that are exchanged on the forum and the actions that are taken in the software. From that a richer picture of the person might emerge.

This gives further support to the importance of shared activity as the way in which individuals can learn about each other - or rather, just 'learn'.

Scott said...

Yes - another aspect to this is that OSS communities also use issue trackers, which provides the Winograd/Flores aspects of triggering action and monitoring commitments of participants.

I guess the closest system to this in education is online assessment (though I'm not sure to what extent assessment activity is negotiated and agreed among participants in online courses).

Paul Richardson said...

Hi, Mark. This post is (as ever) very thought-provoking. I have been thinking about its implications for teacher practice, and finding a bit of discordance with my own experience (always a good starting point for a spot of learning..). The part which troubles me most is the statement that "the absences of the other person (the unthinkables) cannot be determined". While this is true in its broadest sense, I think that this notion conceals a lot of variety. I am not sure exactly what you mean by 'Absence' here, but I take it to be very broad, i.e. it may be a failure to respond to a specific point, or within a time-frame, or a complete failure to respond. Learners usually come into the experience with radically different expectations of each other, and themselves, and the mismatch between these expectations, and the reality, is (perhaps) what causes most disappointment. Groups and individuals are very variable, and it is part of the role of the teacher (and the organisation) to manage this variety. One commonly adopted method is to clarify ground rules at the outset, and this certainly helps to manage the variety of expectation. Of course, this only provides a partial answer, but a set of such methods can lead to an overall strategy for managing the process.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Paul,
What I am saying is that it is harder to determine absences [the learner's 'hinterland' or their constraints which will have a bearing on their utterances] in an online environment. The eyes, body language, etc, all reveal this much more effectively. Face-to-face, we pick up the multiple descriptions given to us and try to determine as complete a picture of the learner as possible - which guides us to act.

What I am criticising is a cybernetic view of communication which says that communication is a positive (i.e. present) coordination of utterances: "I say x, you say y, I adjust x to your y, etc". I think this is incorrect. The fact that we think so carefully about what we say before we say it - and that the whole process can be very emotional - is an indication that much more is going on.

What I think happens is that teachers wish to have successful communications with learners, and therefore have to strategise their 'moves'. All their possible utterances are laid out before them - how do they select which one? They have to consider the possible utterances of the learner in response. They can only do this by appreciating the constraints that the learner is operating within. This is the 'negative image' of the learner, and is not generally revealed by the 'present' utterances that the learner makes. The learner too will be doing the same kind of calculations with regard to the teacher.

Communications media are not equal with regard to the revealing of constraints (or absences) - despite the fact that functionally, each medium can be said to transmit 'messages'.

Happy new year!!

1300 Numbers said...

Yes indeed, any form of interaction is very important for communication.