Sociology 304

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 agents.

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):

  1. Mutual interruptibility. This implies a conversation between the participants where either can interrupt the other, and often at unexpected times. The interruptions must, however, be such that the conversation does not end, or is not broken off by one party as a result of this. This is where the goal may be important - if one participant feels that the other has a quite different aim in mind, this could make the interaction useless.

  2. Graceful degradation. If a question or response emerges that is out of the expected range or is unanswerable, then the participants must find a way to maintain the conversation. Again, the overall goal may be important, or the goals of the two participants must be compatible or complementary.

  3. Limited look-ahead. If the overall result of the conversation is known to both participants, then it may not be worthwhile interacting. What makes for interaction is some degree of unexpected result, both in terms of specific responses and overall direction of the interaction.

  4. No-default. For there to be real interaction, this interaction must develop and proceed along its own path. It cannot be entirely preplanned.

  5. Impression of infinite data base. In the real world, this would appear to hold, in that even where the range of possibilities appears limited, there is always some chance of an unanticipated outcome. In simulations, it often appears that there are only so many choices, with no possibilities outside this. For a simulation to appear real, the range of choices must be similar to what is available in the real world.

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 these follows.

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 contexts.

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. 95-96).

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 interpretation.

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 very positive.

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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Notes from April 1, 1999 class. Last edited on April 1, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.