Saturday, November 18, 2006

Presence is irrational by nature

Technologies are rational by design, and they tend to rationalize human activity when used. I came across an interesting reading (Luhmann, 1993, 1995) which emphasized the over simplification often introduced by technology. I think this is particularly true in complex human related applications, such as those found in mediated communications.

The flipside of technological simplification is loss of flexibility and contingent response that have to be re-instituted through artificial mechanisms. Technological sequences cannot handle (i.e. absorb, ignore, forget or dissimulate) unforeseen incidents at the level on which they operate, even though technologists currently attempt to construct systems that respond to emergent events on the basis of learning from experience (i.e. neural networks). Such simple behavioral characteristics as forgetfulness, dissimulation and indifference, that we often assume to be part and parcel of the limitations of humans, play an extremely important and adaptive role under conditions of emergence, complexity and unpredictability.

Human communications and interactions are neither rational nor designed. Furthermore, temporal regularity is important in human experience. Communication technologies create perturbations in the regularity of time that characterizes a life made of personal habits and social routines. Habits and routines are more than repetition. They are often unique and spontaneous human experiences, where each repetition is different from the last.
By comparison, immediacy and access, as well as the constant flow of information, command that we attend to whatever is nearest and most urgent. Doing so, we lose a line of continuity to a dashed line of distraction.  In the end, we pay attention, but in spurts of sameness that contribute little to a healthy experience.

The adaptation between the technical and the human takes place at what is called the "interface." In the case of communication, this not just a user interface, but also a social interface. It is social because it mediates communication while facilitating the exchange of interpersonal cues and acknowledgments.

Because communication and presence technologies can stretch our relationships across time and space, they produce proximities involving rhythms of interaction, coordination of activity, ways of communicating, and ways of offering and protecting our availability. They do it creating kind of virtual proximities in which we become "equidistant" to one another. Unlike physical proximity, temporal proximity can be described as having qualities of speed, duration, acceleration, rhythm, and synchronization. Amongst the major challenges for communication and presence technologies we will find

  • respect for habits and social routines without reducing them to simple functional repetitions,
  • seemless flexibility and adaptability of user interaction,
  • mediation of rythms and time, in complement of space, to induce a more human impression of proximity.

Today's communication and presence technologies’ interfaces often create a recurring sameness. The functions codified in the technologies reproduce the same abstracted operation and the same simplified representation with each repetition. This functional repetition displaces the spontaneity of social tradition. And we begin to think that repetition itself is dull, when it is the technical procedure implementation that is dull. Just look at a mobile phone to get a sense of what I am driving at…

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