Communication in today’s world is mediated by technologies in a multiplicity of ways. Telephones and mobile phones are integrated into the very cultures of sociability and personal connectivity, especially in large-scale industrialized societies where contacts and relationships are maintained across significant distances. Hopper (1992) characterized such populations as “people of the phone” in an attempt to encapsulate the extent to which telephone conversation is relied upon and even actively sought after, as persons are prone to abandon almost any other activity in order to answer the telephone’s summons. Increasingly, too, Internet message exchange systems are coming to play a pivotal role in everyday sociability networks, in the light of growing accessibility of computer hardware and software, burgeoning of technological sophistication, especially among the younger population, and expansion of broadband connectivity linking home computers to the Internet.
In a wider sense, the interface between ordinary people and the professional spheres of politics, finance, education, health, and so on operates more and more via technological mediation: for example, television and radio news and interview broadcasts, automated inquiry systems, web-based information gateways, and interactive electronic devices of numerous types. In the world of work (particularly white-collar work), communication is increasingly technologized: from the ubiquitous office phone and email systems, to Internet and video conferencing, to the expert systems frequently deployed in command and control centers for public utility and transport services.
For language and social interaction researchers, broad sociological themes such as these translate into questions of the relationship between structures and patterns of interpersonal communication and the enablements and constraints – or affordances (Hutchby 2001) – of technologies used in mediating social interaction. The main areas in which researchers have turned their attention explicitly toward the nature of technologically mediated discourse are radio and television broadcasting, telephone conversation and mobile communications, computer-mediated interaction, and expert systems at work.
Radio And Television: Communication And The Overhearing Audience
Radio and television talk has a specific character which serves to differentiate it from the vast majority of institutional forms of discourse, and which therefore provides a specialized set of questions to which researchers in language and social interaction have been drawn to address themselves. One feature of particular relevance stems from the fact that its principal intended recipients are not co-present but distributed, physically, geographically, and often temporally. There may be co-present audiences in the studio setting, and that collection of recipients may act as a “mass” audience in the traditional sense. But even then there is a further layer of recipients who are not only physically absent but individually distributed. Given these conditions of production and reception, the issue is one of how broadcast talk is mediated and distributed to its various recipient constituencies.
Much of the work in this area has begun from the perspective of conversation analysis (CA). For CA, broadcast talk is a form of institutional discourse and its different genres are characterized according to the relative formality or informality of their turntaking systems. For example, in the case of news interviews, a particular type of question– answer structure provides the oriented-to means by which the institution of the broadcast interview is produced and sustained by participants, but also the means by which interviewers can be adversarial within the constraints of journalistic neutralism (Clayman & Heritage 2004). In the case of radio phone-ins, a much more informal system of turn exchange nevertheless yields observable features of institutionality and orientation to the public, broadcast nature of the talk (Hutchby 1996). In the case of genres such as audience participation debate shows, structures of turn-taking and utterance design can reveal ambivalence in the nature of broadcast talk (Tolson 2001). On the one hand, during confrontations being played out face-to-face on the platform, it is not obvious to what extent the speakers exhibit a mutual orientation to the relevance of an overhearing audience. On the other hand, the design of hosts’ turns in particular reveals an orientation to framing confrontations in terms of the involvement of an audience (both absent and co-present). The question of how broadcast talk is designed for recipiency by an absent, “overhearing” audience has been central to many studies in this area (Hutchby 2006).
Telephony: Intimacy At A Distance
The telephone is a technology that for over a century has allowed people to speak with the intimacy of face-to-face conversation without being physically co-present. Conversation analysts have investigated the nature of talk and recipiency on the telephone in some detail (Hopper 1992; Hutchby 2001). While most of the sociological attention that has been given to the telephone has focused on questions of the broad social and cultural impacts of the technology without paying much attention to telephone interaction in itself (Pool 1981), language and interaction researchers have focused on revealing the technology’s impacts at a more local interactional level.
For instance, around the telephone’s affordance for intimacy at a distance there have evolved distinctive forms of conversational opening and closing sequences. In relation to this, the properties of the telephone’s ring itself can afford novel possibilities for patterns of interaction. For example, dimensions of accountability surround apparently minor issues such as how quickly we pick up the phone, how we respond to call-waiting tones, or whether we use answering machines as call-screening devices (Hopper 1992). The range of social contexts in which telephone calling and answering take place also afford the development of a whole range of new, interactionally relevant forms of social identity. For example, analysis of calls can reveal a micro-politics of power around what Hopper termed “caller hegemony”; or around the different responsibilities of callers, answerers, and “not-called” answerers (“gatekeepers”; Hutchby 2001).
The advent of mobile telephony yields further possibilities for extending this research. Here, technological elements such as caller identification, along with social factors such as the personalization of phone handsets and the de-anchoring of the phone and its user from singular physical locations, lead to changes in the structures of communication, especially in terms of opening exchanges and the organization of topic initiation (Hutchby & Barnett 2005).
Online Interaction: Textual “Talk” And Temporality
The Internet affords new and distinctive forms of mediated interaction. Here newsgroups and Internet “chat” domains have grown up as spaces in which participants can interact, albeit largely through a textual rather than a verbal medium, while being geographically distributed. Studies of online interaction have foregrounded temporality as a dimension of additional relevance. Newsgroup interaction tends to be asynchronous, in the sense that participants leave messages that can be retrieved at any time by others (Baym 1996). Internet relay chat (IRC), on the other hand, is quasi-synchronous: participants need to be online at the same time in order to contribute to the discussion, but the technological mediation introduces a temporal lag between turn production and reception, which renders turn-taking problematic. For example, participants in this environment may experience difficulties relating “current” and “prior” or “current” and “next” turns because other turns may intervene as their own is being typed out or distributed via the network server (Garcia & Jacobs 1999).
IRC enables an escape from traditional paradigms of social interaction, which are based on the centrality of presence (even on the telephone, our interactant is “present” at the other end of the line; in broadcasting, personalities are visually or sonically present). One upshot of this relative anonymity is that users can feel freer than in co-present interaction to breach the social boundaries which humans ordinarily place around interaction with strangers (Reid 1991). Nevertheless, online interaction is mediated not only by the technology of Internet servers and computer terminals, but also by a unique hierarchy of participant statuses. While aspects of IRC encourage users to play with the conventional limits of expression, breaking the boundaries of social etiquette, the participants appear to be attempting to form themselves into “communities” with distinctly structured behavioral norms, forms of expression, and the rest.
Expert Systems: Adapting To The Technology
Computer technologies such as expert systems and those for supporting cooperativework-based tasks also operate as media for communication of a certain sort. Such systems, typically deployed in workplace environments, are designed ostensibly to assist or complement human workers in carrying out specific tasks. But they do not operate in abstraction from human work and communication, and the humans who work with them need to find ways of incorporating into their interactions with each other the demands and constraints that emerge from the design of the systems. At the same time, there are ways in which the technological artifacts themselves can be seen as “participants” in the interaction, at least in the sense that their outputs (such as words or pictures on a screen) can become oriented to as “contributions,” which are the subject of mutual, active, and collaborative sense-making on the part of humans.
When we encounter such technologies we are often invited into a form of dialogue with them (Suchman 1987). For instance, computer screens make suggestions for us, give us instructions, and ask if we really want to do what we have just instructed the system to do. There are two choices here: either we try to make the technology conform to our existing ways of accomplishing actions, or we adapt to the modalities of action and interchange programmed into the technology. Studies of how doctors use their computers when consulting with patients have suggested that the system itself, and its “activities” (whatever is happening on the screen), can become an intrinsic part of the conversation (Greatbatch et al. 1993). The consultation, in other words, becomes modeled according to the technology’s requirements. However, from the opposite angle, studies of how expert systems are implemented in complex decision-making environments such as emergency services dispatch have indicated that humans often end up working around the technological imperatives of the system because their own situated knowledge and interactive flexibility are better fitted to the rapidly changing nature of the environment in which they are working (Whalen 1995).
Lastly, we increasingly communicate “with” certain forms of technology. Although they have not yet reached particularly high levels of conversational sophistication, speechgenerating computers and artificial intelligence systems are increasingly encountered in information seeking and other basic service encounters. Designers of more advanced systems are attempting to build computers that could hold “conversations” with humans (Luff et al. 1990), and this prompts the questions of what those conversations will look like, whether they will manifest any significant differences with human–human conversation, and also, significantly, what implicit assumptions about the nature of human interaction will underlie the design of such systems.
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