Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hermeneutics & Asynchronous Dialogue

A recent conversation with a colleague caused me to make a connection that I have not made (and in retrospect is obvious!) between the general project of understanding and the nature of dialogic involvement in the process of coming to an understanding. My assumption in characterizing "asynchronous dialogue" has been that we are attempting to have a dialogue across time and space via a computer mediated technology. What I failed to connect was that this is a process that is still at its most basic one of a person reading a text. And, if, as text it is open to the history and tradition implicit in hermeneutic interpretation and analysis then those techniques can be used in a typical discussion board asynchronous conversation.
And as I write this I am not sure if the systems are analogous. For example, if person A writes text "a" to person B. Person B writes back to Person A with text "b" there is in my view an implicit understanding that person A is anticipating what person B will say beyond their text "b". When I am reading (for example) the work of GH Mead I am reading the text "m" from person M but in this case person M is dead. What does this mean for my interpretation of "m"? In fact how should I understand my interpretation over and against my anticipated response?
If I am reading a post off of a discussion board from Person A who is alive if would seem to figure in my interpretation of text "a". My response to text "a" in this case will anticipate (perhaps) a response from Person A. Where is my anticipated response in the case of Mead and text "m"?  My textual response to text "m" is perhaps for other people (perhaps fans of person M)? So what's the difference? How does asynchronous dialogue as I have been interpreting it differ from textual hermeneutics?  I think I have been more interested in what my asynchronous interlocutor says (or will say) rather than fully engaging my understanding in what my reading adds to her writing of a specific text (e.g., message). 
In trying to figure this out I am thinking that Taylor (2002) has some helpful ideas. His view in contrasting knowledge with understanding or scientific knowing (Erklarung) from hermeneutic involvement (Verstehen) is that they differ fundamentally. Understanding (in direct contrast to knowing), according to Taylor, has three key methodological components. First, it is bilateral. Second, it is party dependent (or, as I read this situated), and third, it generally requires a revision of goals as the process goes on. This is because one's interlocutor "talks back". From Taylor's perspective this is true generally and covers the frozen or material objects of scientific investigation as well as the "text" in a normal or interpretive/hermeneutic reading. However this is where it gets confusing. How exactly does the frozen text take the place of a live interlocutor?
So now I am thinking of two related strands. First is the relationship between knowledge and understanding from the tradition of European philosophy with roots in German Idealism and second is the relationship between subject and object as interpreted by American pragmatists – particularly Dewey and Mead. 
Mead (1934) suggests that the development of the object is gradual and carried out in a long evolutionary process. His primary account of the “act” (Mead, 1938) indicates that the memory (how I roughly interpret Mead’s “attitude/perception” moment of the act) of the organism allows it to act such that “the later stages of the experience itself can be present in the immediate experience which influences them” (Mead,1934, p. 87). These “later stages of the experience” are the built up repertoire of possible responses to stimuli that have become generalized as an “attitude”. Mead (1934) tells us that “What is given at the outset is determined by the attitude to what is to come later” (p. 86).
What is interesting to me about this explanation of purposeful action (responding to a stimulus prospectively or anticipating the appropriate response prior to the response) is that it is logically consistent with the more elaborate and familiar characterization of communication via language. What I think Mead is getting at is that the ontological “object” of consciousness is present prior to the development of a particular consciousness of that object as a constituent part of an “act” performed by any organism in the ongoingness of its metabolism, living, moving, and/or communicating with its environment. So I see two things worth mentioning. First is the relative nature of our conception of an object of consciousness. It must be the result of a development or a “learning” and so is subject to the history and transactional consequences of that history. Second are the metaphysical or ontological implications – here it is clear that as I jump from myself as a knower (and as an object) to another knower (or object) the same restrictions that apply to me apply to the other. That is, the other is foreclosed from knowing any object outside of its own history of learning and constructing objects from experience. In other words existence is constrained by perspective. So what it is I am learning about the object is best characterized by the notion of knowledge (Erklarung) but my encounter with the object is always first/best mediated by my understanding (Verstehen) of it. Each encounter with an object of experience (either real or virtual – concrete or abstract) is braided with these two modes of knowing. How these braids are balanced seems significant. It appears that language/reflective consciousness is the primary vehicle for knowledge and perception/language for understanding. While language is implicated in both modes it is the primary carrier of knowledge and a secondary vehicle for understanding. 
The implications of this concerning dialogue in that the dialogic relationship can be conceived of apart from language and the constraints of reflective consciousness in expecting an “object” to manifest as an instance of linguistic categorization and meaningfulness. In other words I can observe dialogue in myself toward any object or in any object in relation to any other object. (Actually I should say I "encounter" dialogue - the word "observe" implies a subject/object relationship and I think as a "creature" I encounter the world (see Reed, 1996). I am seeing dialogue as an example of Mead’s sociality (Mead, 1932/2002) where a “novel event is in both the old order and the new which its advent heralds” (p. 75). If this is as true for flat worms as it is for human beings I think we have a different kind of responsibility toward the world than classical ethics would suggest.

In any case I am now thinking of knowledge/understanding in terms of sociality and dialogue. It seems that the dominant epistemological worldview that privileges knowledge as the source of understanding (and not the other way around) is patently not the case. Understanding as bilateral, situated, and dynamic is a much better place from which to begin.
“Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not to be believ’d” (73) “Proverbs of Hell” William Blake

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mead, G. H. (1932/2002). The philosophy of the present. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
Mead, G. H., (1938). The philosophy of the act. Chicago: Ill., University of Chicago Press.
Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, C. (2002). Understanding the other: A Gadamerian view on conceptual schemes. in Malpas, J. E., von Arnswald, U., & Kertscher, J. (Eds), Gadamer's century: Essays in honor of Hans-Georg Gadamer (pp. 279-297). Cambridge (Mass.): the MIT press.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


So here it is many years later and I am still thinking about dialogue. The asynchronous part is not as compelling as it used to be but it still matters. I think now my understanding of time has matured a bit so that I can see the truth in claiming that all speech is asynchronous in reference to interlocutors. We all have our own perspective and our own position. Of course the synchrony we experience is qualitatively very real and being proximal to an other in conversation or dialogue is synchronous. The asynchronous part is still vexing. I am surprised that in all these years of rapid innovation there is still very little of note happening in asynchronous technology. I remain hopeful that this will once again matter and people will build applications and tools to bridge synchronous and asynchronous experiences.
On a more current note and related to the above I speculate that indeterminacy is related to determinacy much as synchronous communication is related to asynchronous communication. As we write and record (and otherwise represent) our speech and thought it becomes real in a way that our discursive jabbering does not - or maybe I should say "real" as much as I should say substantial or manifest. This manifest speech is then frozen in time - indexed to a particular time and place but serving to "message" interlocutors at any other time and place. So we are now asynchronous.
If I were to think more about the existential and phenomenological nature of dialogue I would have to say that asynchronous dialogue is a nonsensical phrase. But I still don't really know what I am talking about.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An amazing aspect, to me, of dialogue in general and talking via mediated asynchronous spaces in particular is that our normal and typical standards and expectations for communication are generally upheld. And these expectations are a complex lot. I have been reading recently in the area of social identity theory, social categorization theory, and optimal differentiation theory. These theories all have in common the academic study of how, when, and even why our identities and behaviors change and morph across group and social boundaries. How am I in my 'in group' and how is that related to how I 'am' in relation to other groups? How do I talk to my spouse and how do I talk to a blog? Where is the 'me' in these conversations? I come back to the main principle of ecological psychology - the affordance. The affordance is (loosely put) an opportunity for action. It is a way of talking about the very postmodern notion that who and what I am is as much the result of my extended environmental self as it is my compacted personal private self. And so I speak through the twists and turns of these relationships.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Now more than ever....

As I reflect on the past few years and the growth of synchronous technologies involving social networks.... I am struck by how lame interfaces like Blackboard really are. There is very little that I can see happening in the development of meaningful asynchronous technologies. Text and graphics, video & audio are all obviously necessary and good things. But the subjective and unarticulated feeling of being connected is also important. I have been working on an idea that will extend both reputation and awareness into the asynchronous realm. I am particularly interested in 'online' learning applications and situations.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Communication is a plastic word (Poerksen, 1988). This means, roughly, that the word promises a lot but delivers little. The word means many things to many people in many contexts. Spending time making provisional definitions can take whole books, degree programs, and/or study. Relationship is also a plastic word. Unfortunately both of these general ideas are necessary precursors to my talking about or thinking about asynchronous dialogue.

I am interested in asynchronous dialogue because I think it represents one of the primary opportunities that distributed information systems offer. Asynchronous internet based communications is an architecture that can afford the collaboration and coordination necessary to maintain local and global coherence. I understand synchronous and asynchronous as extremes of a continuum. The extremes are concepts that have no ‘real’ referent. The in-between-ness of these extremes do have reference to experience.

Time is relative. Certainly this must mean that proximity (distance) is a fundamental parameter of synchronous/asynchronous time. (t=d/r). Consequently there is little reason to believe that distance somehow determines an absolute distinction between now and not now. This claim is what fuels my interest in understanding how to afford meaningful asynchronous dialogue. How far can we remove ourselves in time from a conversation or dialogue and still have a conversation or dialogue?

But I am straying from the primary intent of this post. Before I explore the time structure of asynchronous dialogue I want to look more closely at the idea of communication and relationship.

I will pretend that communication implies a coherent perturbation. What is that, one might ask? Imagine an entity with a boundary. On one side of the boundary is everything that is ‘not’ the entity and on the other side is everything that ‘is’ the entity. Further imagine that we live in world with entities of various types that all share this property of inside/outside boundedness. Even though this perspective is but a perspective (not a definitive or complete explanation of phenomena) it nonetheless can serve us well in coming to understand the ideas of communication and relationship. (note: it is only our ‘consciousness’ or ability to see ourselves as objects that gives us the opportunity to see that a boundary is ‘two-sided’. This is the essence of the self/other distinction.)

Energy and movement are related. I would like to say that energy is movement but I am not sure what that really means. At the level of organisms movement and energy are related through time and the relationship between time and experience.

From really slow movement (matter) to really fast movement (energy) we participate as movement in movement. This reflexive conundrum is what I understand the ‘observer problem’ to be. We are that which we perceive. The architecture of this conundrum can be seen as the body/mind of human being. That is, looking carefully at how we describe our own form can help us understand its relationship to form in general and the possible origins of our human form. It seems to me that understanding this (the form issue) will help us understand the interaction of forms (a communication like activity).

Movement is the essence of communication. Mead’s social gesture (Mead, 1934) posits the creation of mind and self out of the coordinated gestures of social groups. The conversation of gestures is, from Mead’s perspective, a fundamental property of organisms. This conversation is a way to understand the evolutionary movement of individual organisms in their (our) living. We seek or effort after both value and meaning (Reed, 1996). The seeking after value consolidates gains in the service of survival. The seeking after meaning opens up horizons and the possibility of survival and new learning. Our movement through the environment is a necessity.

The conversation of significant gestures (language) that we experience is an innovation or development coming out of our biological and embodied state. One of the complicating factors in communication theory is the mixture or blending of gestures and significant gestures in the experience of individuals. The physical and embodied nature of our experience is often not available to linguistic consciousness. Further, our linguistic consciousness may occlude the physical experience of being by ignoring or otherwise occluding physical experience (e.g., feeling).

The relationship between our physical experience, our linguistic consciousness, and proximity and time are all constituents of communication on the synchronous/asynchronous continuum.

Language has created for us multiple worlds grounded in the physical world. Our relationship to others in the non-physical (non-proximate) world and the possibilities of making meaning are fundamental questions to me. How can we facilitate meaning making asynchronously? Which of the parameters (embodied feelings, language, time, proximity) required of communication is most malleable?

Computer mediated communication (CMC) design strategies are efforts to optimize these parameters for the purpose of better ‘communication’.

It occurs to me that relationship is a key factor here and one that is not (at least for my purposes) adequately understood. What I am exploring is the design of website affordances that can fulfill our ‘relationship’ needs in the process of ongoing dialogue.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poerksen, U. (1988). Plastic Words: The tyranny of a modular language (J. Mason & D. Cayley, Trans.). University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Reed, E. S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Closer is better?

There is a lot of activity these days about trying to make distance education (and distance technologies in general) as much like face to face as possible (as if we have a great record of communication, transformation, and harmony in our face to face lives!). Underlying these efforts is the (I think) unconscious and unreflective assumption that what we do in our face to face encounters is unproblematic, knowable, and preferable. I think that a fundamental issue that isn't much talked about is the basic definition of what learning is - or even more broadly communication.

I recently came across an article that used the term 'bandwidth' to describe the relationship between 'student' and 'teacher' in relation to issues in distance education. To me this characterization assumes the adoption of the 'conduit' metaphor in coming to understand communication - that is, the transmission of content from one brain to the other. I believe that our relationships are more strange than that. Much of my thinking is informed by Maturana, autopoiesis, and a biological/systems interpretation of our phenomenological experience.If, as I believe, we are not so much 'informed' by a communication message as we are 'perturbed' then the notion of distance becomes less Euclidian and more Einsteinian (so to speak).

By this I mean that the 'length' issue isn't as important as the 'like' issue. How much are we 'like' or 'familiar' with our interlocutors? Do we have a basis, need, or motivation to be in this relationship? Obviously this is part of the basic set up of standard educational contexts - many students would probably not be in school if they weren't somehow incented to be there through either force (K-12) or fear (post secondary).

My point is that the question of motivation to stay in relationship is more important than the physics of communication in either proximal or distal settings. I think we conflate these two issues in many discussion of distance in education. There is no question that being face to face with someone - in each other's presence, is our natural and adapted state - however, simple letter writing has historically extended & deepened relationships in a way that has satisfied and motivated people for a long time.I think that what is happening to education with the advent of the web and all its bells and whistles is that it is exposing core inconsistencies in our rhetoric about teaching and learning.

In my opinion the 'factory model' of education doesn't work to educate - it works to instruct and train. For much of instruction and training (say learning to be a physician) it is critical that we be proximal to our patients, mentors, and other necessary personnel. For other types of instruction where simulations will do as well (for example Air Traffic Control school) we can work and learn virtually. As anyone that has taught pre-school or elementary school (or their own children) knows - we don’t so much ‘instruct’ kids into learning how to read as we ‘love’ them into it.

Good elementary education is based on relationships of trust, respect, and love. Education, in my view, remains apart from these discussions. Education is about relationships that result in transformation. Mutual transformation. I think that too many of our professional educators believe that it is only a one way street. Distance education is possible and powerful if people are open to being in dialogue. In fact, the technology may well afford a greater and greater incidence of this type of transformative relationship.

However, I don't think it will be pioneered by our current professional cadre of 'educators'. They (we) think we know the answers. It appears that we are really just learning how to ask the right questions.


Sunday, January 02, 2005

Commitment & Asynchronous Dialogue (AD)

It occurs to me that another key factor in successful ongoing AD is a commitment to both the process and to one another. In some ways this begs the question of dialogue and may be AD's undoing in any but select environments (e.g., organizations or virtual teams that somehow have a vested interest in transcending the standard 'information only' discourse of traditional communications.