Sociology 304

April 7, 1998

Social Environment of Cyberspace - II

6. Interaction.

a. 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. In early computers, we punched cards and fed them through a card reader and waited for results to appear. In the case of statistical work, it might have been necessary to wait until the next day to obtain the results. The advent of computer terminals and keyboards connected to computers, along with faster computers, 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. For the most part though, all that was really changed was that the results came back much more quickly.

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, it appears that computers have become more interactive. Now we can point and click on an icon, get a result back quickly and the result may be a wide range of further choices. We again select one choice, point and click, and may obtain a further set of choices or information. All this is done very quickly, involves 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 automatic, with the electronic impulses provided by the directions of the operator, and the responses a result of the computer program.

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" (p. 135). Also note the debate over what an encyclopedia might mean, a debate between those who thought that different viewpoints might be presented as opposed to those who thought that the encyclopedia should present truth (p. 136).

Computers and networks today operate faster than most of us can think or move, but can this truly be considered interaction?

b. Stone on Interaction (pp. 9-12). 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," 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. While a general direction may be noted, part of what makes it interaction is its meandering and discursive nature.

While it might be possible for these characteristics to be satisfied with 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.

c. Interaction in Sociology.

i. 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 can consider 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.

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.

ii. 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), number of contacts (more extensive), and nature of contact (quick impressions), so that 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.

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.

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, a possibility of ignoring the message, and greater precision in reporting specific details. 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.

Simmel could not have anticipated the possibility of or expansion in electronic forms of communication. But his approach 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. Conclusions concerning interaction.

i. 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.

ii. 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. Various forms of randomness and other mathematical models might be used to make it appear as if the computer was providing a more realistic form of interaction. 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.

iii. 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. It is some of the consequences of this form of interaction that will become important in considering how interaction takes place in cyberspace, and what the meaning of community might be in cyberspace.

iv. Lack of context. Note that the interaction may be without much context - a postmodern approach. That is, the personality, physical body, gestures, and mode of speech are all absent from the communication, and 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.

v. 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.

7. Community.

a. Meaning of community. While there are many definitions and approaches to community, most of these definitions involve "a group of people in 'social interaction'" (Dasgupta, p. 5). That is, a community must involve more than one person, and usually involves considerably more than two people. People as conscious beings are involved, and they have some form of social interaction which is more than stimulus and response, so that there are processes of interpretation and exercise of the self involved. Some of the ideas that might be connected with community are:

Raymond Williams summarizes the various senses of community as meaning

on the one hand the sense of direct common concern; on the other hand the materialization of various forms of common organization … Community can be the warmly persuasive word to describe an existing set of relationships, or the warmly persuasive word to describe an alternative set of relationships. What is most important, perhaps, is that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) it seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given an positive opposing or distinguishing terms. (Williams, p. 76).

Note the positive meaning generally attached to community, and the manner in which discussions of community often refer to the future or to the past. Often there is an expectation of a coming of community or the possibility of such, or the feeling that there once existed a community but that this has been destroyed or damaged. In this sense, community as an idea may be as important or more important than the actual existence of common ties and forms of social organization.

b. Negative features of community.

c. Virtual community. The notion of community has been extended to cyberspace, perhaps as a part of the use that Williams identifies as an expectation or a possibility of an improved alternative set of relationships (alternative to person-to-person, physical contact).

Note that the direct contact community of traditional, rural, and small-scale society continues to exist in contemporary society, but is modified by and supplemented with new forms of community made possible by new technologies of transportation and electronic communication. Networks of community are established across various geographic parts of cities by individuals with common interests or compatibility. In a mobile society with relatively low cost transportation, these networks of community can extend across larger geographic areas.

With the advent of electronic communication, such as telephone and telegraph, the possibilities for development and expansion of networks were vastly expanded, and some forms of community have become almost independent of space. For example, the academic community, sports communities, and political communities extend across the whole country or the whole world.

Cyberspace, without its high-tech glitz, is partially the idea of virtual community. The earliest cyberspaces may have been virtual communities, passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that united people who were physically separated. Virtual communities sustain themselves by constantly circulating those practices. (From Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?").

d. Virtuality as community. In virtual communities, what is either different or similar to earlier forms and meanings of community?

What I see now is that people do develop an elaborate social life in the imaginary space; they develop elaborate multiple personalities, all of which are grounded in a single body: theirs. The learn how to manipulate these personalities - take them out of the box, dust them, run them, put them back in the box, put them away, take out another one. It's a much more elaborated, ramified version of what we do every day in our social interactions; you're not the same person when you talke to the milkman that you are when you talk to your lover. ... it all ultimately comes back to the physical body and how the things that we see happening, these endless ramifications of virtual communities, come back to help, to assist, to increase the potential of, or to make better the physical body. (Stone interview in Leeson, pp. 113-4).

e. Stone on virtual community.

In "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" (p. 18) Stone notes the following:

Electronic virtual communities represent flexible, lively, and practical adaptations to the real circumstances that confront persons seeking community in what Haraway (1987) refers to as "the mythic time called the late twentieth century." They are part of a range of innovative solutions to the drive for sociality - a drive that can be frequently thwarted by the geographical and cultural realities of cities increasingly structured according to the needs of powerful economic interests rather than in ways that encourage and facilitate habitation and social interaction in the urban context. In this context, electronic virtual communities are complex and ingenious strategies for survival. Whether the seemingly inherent seductiveness of the medium distorts the aims of those strategies, as television has done for literacy and personal interaction, remains to be seen.

f. Conclusions concerning virtual communities. These may provide options for community beyond what have existed in earlier times. At the same time, as Stone notes, these virtual communities have existed before, although in different form and using different modes of communication. The question is whether the quantitative expansion in possibilities for connectivity and interaction in cyberspace will create a qualitative shift in the nature of community. While there can be a certain independence of virtual communication from physical bodies, at present this connection is still quite strong. Most people appear to prefer person-to-person contact at some point, whether it be prior interaction that is extended into cyberspace, or initial cyberspace contact that turns into person-to-person contact.

8. Conclusion to Stone

Stone feels that there are some new forms of interaction, community, and social organization emerging as a result of the development, expansion, and immersion in the new virtual and cyber technologies. The manner in which these will develop is not entirely clear from Stone, and the title of her book "The War of Desire and Technology" indicate that the developments could go in various directions. For one thing, Stone notes that we will all be altered as we embark on this quest with technology (just as we were changed with modernity). Page 183 lays out the lack of certainty concerning direction. However, by indicating positive features such as desire and other positive human qualities, play, multiplicity, community, and individual and collective human agency, Stone raises the possibility of a promising future. By dealing with some of these aspects, the positive possibilities are clearer than in much of Kroker's writing.


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origina and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1973.

Anderson, Karen L., Sociology: A critical introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.

Dasgupta, Satadal, editor, The Community in Canada: Rural and Urban, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1996.

Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996.

Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, second edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York, Ace, 1984.

Kellner, Douglas, "Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities," in Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, editors, Modernity and Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1992, pp. 141-177.

Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.

Leeson, Lynn Hershman, editor, Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, Seattle, Bay Press, 1996.

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne, " Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?", May 11, 1997.

Williams, Raymond, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, London, Fontana, Flamingo edition, 1983.

Notes from April 7, 1998. Last edited on April 7, 1998.

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