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.