April 1, 1999
Social Environment of Cyberspace - II
1. Claims of Interactivity. One of the claims made by many
who promote the new technologies is that the latest versions of
computers and computer programs are interactive or more interactive.
The computer itself is sometimes referred to as being interactive,
media like CD-ROMS and games may be considered interactive, and
the internet is often considered to be interactive.
Those of us who used computers in the 1970s (or earlier) punched
cards and fed them through a card reader and waited for results
to appear on a printout on paper. There were no terminals and
screens at that time, although the keyboard was little different
than today. In the case of statistical work, it might have been
necessary to wait until the next day, or for several days, to
obtain the results. The advent of computer terminals along with
keyboards connected to computers, as well as faster computers
and computers with greater capacity to store data, resulted in
a considerable speedup of this process. In addition, when instructions
were typed into the computer, the computer would often be programmed
to return certain messages - making it seem as if a conversation
was being held with the computer. This seemingly interactive form
was not possible with punch cards and printouts. For the most
part though, all that was really changed was that the results
came back much more quickly. But this quantitative change in speed
and capacity may have created a qualitative change in the way
in which people began to use computers.
With the development of more sophisticated programs, programmed
to provide responses to a much wider range of instructions, and
with a much wider range of responses, computers appear to have
become more interactive. With the development of programs where
the user points and clicks on an icon, the computer produces a
result quickly and presents it to the user. The result presented
is often a wide range of further choices. We again select one
option, point and click, and may obtain a further set of choices
or information. All this is done very quickly, involves the transfer
of vast amounts of information, and involves moving digital information
across many electronic networks and great geographic space. Or
in the case of computer games, sophisticated programs respond
to many directives from the operator of the game. But again, the
wide range of possible responses is programmed or automatic, with
the electronic impulses provided by the directions of the operator,
and the responses provided by the computer program. That is, while
we may refer to the computer as smarter or more intelligent, all
that may have changed is that the computer is providing a wider
range of possible choices at much greater speed. No thought, reflection,
consideration, or weighing of alternatives is done by the computer,
at least not in the manner that humans do these. Even a rational
economic man is not a computer.
Stone notes that the Atari executives' views of interactivity
was turn-taking where "the user pushed a button and the machine
did something as a result" a "poke-and-see" approach
to interaction (p. 135). The computer programmers had a much more
human idea of interaction, whereby there were "two conscious
agencies in conversation, spontaneously developing a mutual discourse,
taking cues and suggestions from each other in the fly" (p.
135). There was also debate between the Atari programmers and
corporate executives concerning what the meaning of an encyclopedia
is - a debate between those who thought that different viewpoints
might be presented (the programmers) as opposed to those who thought
that the encyclopedia should present truth (the executives). Stone
reports an interesting exchange between one of the programmers
and Charles Van Doren (p. 136).
Computers and networks today operate faster than most of us can
think or move, but can this truly be considered interaction?
2. Stone on Interaction (pp. 9-12 and pp. 134 ff.) Stone
notes that the commercial applications of computers and computer
games provide for only a very limited type of interactivity. Stone
argues that "interactivity implies two conscious agencies
in conversation" (p. 11) and for any individual who is working
alone with computers or playing computer games, it is difficult
to imagine the machine as a conscious agent. Perhaps future intelligent
machines will take on more of the characteristics of conscious
Stone uses a definition of interaction "as mutual and simultaneous
activity on the part of both participants, usually working toward
some goal" (p. 134), although not necessarily a common goal
(p. 10). She further notes that there are five aspects or implications
of interaction (pp. 10-11):
Note: Items 1. and 2. appear to be associated with the
goals of the interaction. The goals of the participants must be
similar, complementary, or at least not incompatible. Items 3.
and 4. refer to the unplanned nature of interaction. Item 5. refers
to the resources available. That is, not all communication of
data or information can be considered to be interaction. Part
of what makes a communication into interaction is the meandering
and discursive nature of the communication.
While it might be possible for these five characteristics to be
satisfied with machines (v. can probably be met by machines),
Stone notes that such conditions are likely to occur only in the
case of two conscious agents. The above conditions may differ
somewhat from conventional sociological views of interaction,
but provide a useful perspective on interaction, one that may
allow a discussion of the meaning of interaction in cyberspace.
There is certainly a possibility that social interaction in cyberspace
may take on different forms than it has in earlier forms of society.
3. Interaction in Sociology.
Interaction has occupied an important place in sociological theory
and investigation, with one major micro approach being labeled
symbolic interaction. For the most part in sociology, interaction
is considered at the micro level, at the level of agents and agency,
with it being less important at the macro or structural level.
In terms of the importance of interaction, consider how modernity
created new forms of selves and individuals, with new forms of
interaction. The rational economic man and Mr. Prol are each examples
of new ways that people formed identities, took action, and interacted
with others in modernity. While these particular models are limiting
(as noted by Folbre) they do describe some aspects of the new
men (and women) that were created by the Enlightenment, industrialization,
and urbanization in Western Europe. Today, with the advent of
new forms of information technology and communication, new forms
of individual identity and interaction are also developing. That
is, technology is remaking us, or we are remaking ourselves in
the context of the new technologies.
Two of the sociologists who have provided us with many ideas concerning
interaction are Mead and Simmel. A short discussion of each of
a. Mead. Sociological definitions of interaction focus
on individuals who are conscious, acting individuals, who are
capable of taking account of the responses of others. For example,
George Herbert Mead considered the human to differ from other
animals in that the human has a self. By this he meant that a
human being considers the effects of his or her own actions, and
can be the object of these actions. That is, where humans might
respond in an automatic manner to a stimulus in some circumstances,
in general human action occurs as a result of a delay in response.
For humans, there is generally a process of consideration and
interpretation between the stimulus and the response. While it
is true that each of us live in a particular environment, face
or are part of many structures, and have various motives, human
behaviour is not the result of these, but of how each of these
is interpreted and handled. The individual takes on the role of
others and human action results once this process has been completed.
Social interaction is the continued manner in which these actions
take place among two or more people.
Stone's approach to interaction can fit within this framework,
in the sense that she notes that both parties to an interactive
process must be conscious beings, able to respond in much the
same manner as described by Mead. Stone then spells out some of
the processes by which interaction proceeds.
b. Simmel. One way of looking at the changes associated with interaction and community in cyberspace is to consider them in the light of the larger changes in the forms of human interaction and community in earlier periods. The German sociologist Simmel provides a key to this, contrasting the forms of interaction in rural and urban society. These differ because of the length of contact (brevity and fleetingness in urban society and length and stability of contact in rural society), number of contacts (more extensive in urban than rural society), and nature of contact (quick impressions in urban settings and intensive and well developed impressions in rural areas). As a result, a different type of culture develops in cities, as compared with traditional, rural society. The interactions in urban areas form the social life of cities, and individuals develop personalities consistent with an urban setting. For example, the individual may attempt to be different, to adopt a particular fashion or style, to seek "the awareness of others [and] appear concentrated and strikingly characteristic," (Simmel from Faraganis, p. 156). For Simmel, the urban individual
develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. (Simmel from Faraganis, p. 150).
Since urban society is associated with a new form of interaction,
different from rural interaction, cyberspace as a new form of
social environment might be associated with a different forms
of interaction than what are now common.
c. Interaction in Cyberspace. Some of the differences associated
with cyberspace that may be relevant for the change in forms of
interaction are non-personal contact, exclusive use of symbols,
extremely rapid communication, extensive room for interpretation,
desire and fantasy, and the possibility of portrayal of multiple
selves in this space. While cyberspace communications originate
from physical bodies, the recipient of the communication may not
consider these as grounded in a sending body. The recipient may
not know anything about the communication other than what symbols
have been communicated - the name, identity, personality, and
physical characteristics of the originator need not be communicated.
In addition, these symbols can be altered and rearranged by others
in cyberspace. As a result, some messages and images in cyberspace
may ultimately have little connection with the original, and even
less connection with the physical body or personality from which
they originated. This is Kroker's recombinant commodity.
For those who know each other through face-to-face contact and
traditional forms of interaction but who communicate through cyberspace,
there may also be changes in modes of interaction. With new forms
of communication, there is certainly more room for the process
of interpretation, greater chance of delayed response (Mead's
time reflection after a stimulus and before a response), a possibility
of ignoring the message, and greater precision in reporting specific
details. Some of the differences between e-mail and face-to-face
communication illustrate this. These forms of communication may
also lead to maintaining certain types of contact when normal
forms of interaction would not be possible, and may lead certain
individuals to interact who might not normally do so in other
Mead and Simmel could not have anticipated that the expansion
in electronic forms of communication would reach the stage they
have in the contemporary world. But their approaches to examining
interaction and its consequences provides a useful model for considering
the nature of interaction and some of the forms interaction might
take in cyberspace.
d. Stone. Two concepts from Stone indicate ways in which
interaction in cyberspace may constitute a different form than
traditional interaction are bandwidth and the play ethic.
i. Bandwidth. One characteristic noted by Stone is bandwidth.
She introduces this on p. 35 but provides a fuller description
on p. 93. For Stone, bandwidth is "the amount of information
exchanged in unit time" (p. 93). When individuals have face-to-face
meetings in the physical world, there is usually a very high bandwidth.
We see each other, we see the facial expressions, gestures, and
dress, we note how others react, what voices are like, and how
people move. In bureaucratic situations, or in university classes,
the bandwidth may be reduced and in family or intimate situations,
the bandwidth is very wide.
With electronic forms of communication, the bandwidth is obviously reduced considerably, since people cannot usually see each other and observe the full range of facial expressions and body movement. In telephone conversation a voice is present, and such conversations do provide some idea of a range of reactions of the other individual. E-mail with its very narrow bandwidth is good for communicating specific forms of information. Further, note that much of the electronic communication is text based, and is solely that. Certainly most e-mail and chat lines are of this sort. Thus communication is limited to what can be communicated in words. This limits such communications to literate people and has implications for what can be communicated. When e-mail is used to express a wide range of human expression such as feelings, Stone notes that there may be much interpretation involved.
Different bandwidths have implications for the nature of human interaction in different situations. Ordinarily we may consider that face-to-face interaction is the most common form of social interaction, and sets the basis for how we look at human social interaction. But as Simmel noted, even face-to-face interaction differs in different social settings. In addition, with the development of interaction that is not face-to-face but is carried on through different forms of electronic communication, the forms and implications of interaction can differ considerably. For example, while e-mail can be considered to be a straightforward means of communicating between two people, some communicate more effectively than do others when using this medium. Possibly some are not interested only in communicating effectively or instrumentally, and are using e-mail as part of the play ethic. For those concerned with specific organizational procedures, some users develop better forms of communication that do others.
Stone argues that there are a number of effects of changing bandwidth.
She notes that when there is narrow bandwidth, there is more room
for interpretation, fantasy, and desire. This has implications
of this in phone sex - how the few words compress large amounts
of information, and how those who hear these words fill in "missing
information with idealized information" (p. 95). Another
example she uses is data services, where the desire to connect
and communicate may be as important as the actual content (pp.
Grounding in physical bodies. Among academics across Canada and the world, electronic communication in the form of electronic mail and conference calls have become common. These provide a way of keeping in touch, communicating ideas and information, and carrying out administrative tasks, all at relatively low cost and with minimal time and travel involved. It appears that most of the individuals involved in these forms of communication prefer to have these contacts grounded in real people from time to time. That is, a yearly meeting or conference at which people can get to recognize faces and have close to full bandwidth interaction seems to be desired. It may be that younger people or those more heavily involved in the new technologies will take a different approach. Most of the academic individuals who are involved in electronic communications view these as a secondary form of activity, and tend to look on these as tools to assist them in carrying out their tasks more economically, quicker, and efficiently than with earlier technologies.
ii. Play ethic. Returning to current developments, what interests Stone more is the manner in which computer technology is used to develop a play ethic, with accompanying new forms of social interaction. That is, computer culture may involve aspects of play, rather than work. She notes that this can create quite a different mode of use, one that is not necessarily intended but does emerge because it is possible. She notes how some high tech workers may engage in
social interactions in which they change and are changed, in which commitments are made, kept, and broken, in which they may engage in intellectual discussions, arguments, and even sex - they view computers not only as tools but also as arenas for social experience. (p. 15)
To the extent that the play ethic develops, the mode of
interaction of computer users may be quite different than in use
of the computer as tool, or even as prosthetic or cyborg. Note
that in some workplace situations, the play ethic may cause problems
for employees dealing with their supervisors or managers.
One of the ways in which this is reflected in the claims of promoters
of the new technologies is the supposed fun of being on the internet
and using new technologies. There may be no specific aim or purpose
for using the new technologies, except to experiment with different
possibilities, look for new alternatives, explore a new cyberspace
world, and enjoy oneself in doing this. What hackers do and what
developers of computer viruses do may be examples of this. The
Microsoft ads imply that learning can be fun, and the use of computers
as a tool provide a new means of motivating and improving learning.
Some of the uses of the computer are more instrumental, with specific
work oriented purposes. But even there, many of the uses involve
creativity, exploration, and unexpected or unknowable possibilities.
A March, 1999 AT&T advertisement portrays a programmer attempting
to merge two bank systems into one seamless network linking the
two. The programmer worries but is successful and is a "hero."
Example. A University of Winnipeg student, Susan Kravis, explained how she obtained information and stories about people who had near-death experiences. SK noted that she had advertised for a couple weeks in the Winnipeg Free Press and obtained only one or two responses. She was much more successful on the internet, where there is a web page about near-death experiences. From this, SK sent out a note asking for information and stories of people who had had near-death experiences. She obtained a lot of these stories. She thought that the anonymity of the situation, and the potential to change names and situations made it easier for people to respond to this request, whereas the same people may felt uncomfortable explaining the near-death experience in a person-to-person situation. In addition, SK thought that writing about the experiences was easier than talking about the experiences.
4. Conclusions concerning interaction.
a. Conscious beings. Interaction is a process that involves
at least two conscious beings, each capable of taking on the role
of the other, being able to interpret rather than simply respond.
Computers are presumably not conscious in the same sense as are
humans, or even as are non-human animals.
b. Human-computer interactivity. For the most part, human-computer
relations are not interaction, in that one participant in this
process is not conscious, but responds in a programmed and predictable
manner. That is, terms such as meaning, consideration, and interpretation
cannot be applied to machines. Various forms of randomness and
other mathematical models might be incorporated into computer
programs in order to make it appear as if the computer provides
a form of interaction that is more like human social interaction.
But, in the case of these more sophisticated computer games and
where exact prediction is not possible, computer responses are
still programmed in some manner and they are not the result of
c. Human-human interaction in cyberspace. Interaction using
computers does take place when there are at least two conscious
participants who communicate using computer technology. These
may be people who have had face-to-face contact, or prior voice
or written contact. Alternatively, they may be two individuals
who have no knowledge of each other, but are able to come into
contact through cyberspace. In the latter case, the contact may
become a form of conversation and interaction. It is this which
becomes the interactive aspect of computers and cyberspace. In
this case though, the individuals may know nothing more about
each other than what appears in the conversation - the words or
symbols that are communicated. The context within which this interaction
occurs is quite different than the context in which face-to-face
interaction takes place. According to Stone, two aspects of this
are the effects of different bandwidths and the non-instrumental
forms of behaviour, such as the play ethic, that can develop.
It is some of the consequences of these new forms of interaction
that will become important in considering what social interaction
means in cyberspace and in contemporary society, and what the
implications of this might be for the meaning of community.
d. Lack of context. Note that the interaction may be without
much context - a very postmodern approach. That is, the personality,
physical body, gestures, and mode of speech, along with place
or geographic space are all absent from the communication. Only
the elements of the conversation can be considered, because that
is all that is communicated. The context in which they were written
and what was intended by them may be open to much interpretation.
That is, the bandwidth may be very narrow in these circumstances.
e. Freedom, confusion, or constraint? For some, these new
forms of interaction may constitute a realm of freedom. Those
carrying out the communication are not tied to a constraining
context, interaction may be with quite different people than in
physical, face-to-face interaction, and kindred selves may be
united in cyberspace in a way that is not possible in the physical
world. This also raises the possibility of the multiple personalities
and new identities. Some of these may be harmful, some may be
For others, the context and physical interaction may be so important
that they are unable to function in this new setting, or prefer
not to interact there. Cyberspace may appear uninteresting to
some, and confusing or irrelevant to others. The constraints imposed
by narrow bandwidth and communication in set symbols may constrain
some individuals and some forms of communication. While Stone
discusses phone sex as creating new forms of sexual interaction,
intimacy and sex between selves in physical bodies must still
take place in the physical world. Childbirth, socialization, family,
sports, and much of human labour must still be done with real
bodies. Cyberspace may either be of some assistance or some constraint
in dealing with each of these forms of interaction. Some of these
considerations may provide guidelines concerning who might interact
in cyberspace and who will not, and what can be accomplished there
and what cannot.
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