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This is a discussion of the nature of human sociality in a society in which most

interaction is mediated by personal communication technologies (PCTs) or

information and communication technologies (ICTs). My question is, given that

electronic tools of interaction are rapidly approaching ubiquity, and the

incidence and quantity of interactions is unquestioned, what kind of interaction

can we expect, and how does this constitute our society?

What drew me to this project was my curiosity over the apparent effortless

move from discussing “interaction” to invoking concern for “communication.”

Why do we commonly use two apparently synonymous terms? Do these terms

identify a single phenomenon — “communicating”? If so, is communication a

particular form of interaction, and what are the other forms? If not, how can we

distinguish the two phenomena, and how can we be clearer in the alternate use

of these terms?

My purpose in this discussion, then, is to think sociologically (meta-theoretically,

reflectively) about the idea of an Interaction Society, and to produce from

this inquiry contrasted accounts to explain social interaction (with particular

attention to the events that arise when people work in occupational settings and

use ICTs and PCTs in support of working together). See Weber (2003) for

helpful comments on “speaking theoretically.”

We all experience actions of people in the social world. No one doubts the

occurrence of social interaction. The notion, then, of an Interaction Society

appears unproblematic, requiring only guidance on effectiveness and efficiency.

What does account for differing explanations of this social phenomenon

is differing social constructions (theories) drawing upon philosophical differences

of understanding and theory (explanation) of knowledge, value, and


This chapter will critically overview information theory and communication

theory to examine human interaction in organised co-operative working. This

will show that much “communication theory” is not communication theory, but

rather information theory. To be human is to be social — an interactor.

The emergence of the concept of “information” is traced back to less than a

century ago, where the technical concept of “information,” first evident as

recently as in Hartley’s work (1928), problematically avoids any reference to

ideas or meaning, and, thus, to people. The emergence of “information theory”

in the 1940s, and usually attributed to Shannon & Weaver, will be charted.

What will be identified is the desire for action-at-a-distance.

It will be confirmed that nowadays a shift in thinking and acting away from

emphasis on information towards greater emphasis on interaction is discernable.

The differences in social conditions that brought these ideas to the fore will be

characterised through a historical analysis. It will be further argued that we have

always had an “Interaction Society,” and that the locus of attention has been

established as a “scientised” informational conception of interaction since the

nineteenth century, when the problem of “communication” became explicit.

The concept “communication” allows for contact2 without presence. Somehow,

reflects Peters (1999), the natural history of humans as talkative can never

lose the notion of wordless contact. The worry of how to connect with people

has become a given in our daily lives — even as we are surrounded by so many

other people. In the lonely crowd observed by David Riesman (1961),

interaction is alienated — distant, impersonal — each afraid of close contact

with another and equally afraid to be alone and have no contact. So what

attracts us to talk of the possibility of interaction?

When we review the term “interaction” we find two concepts: inter (between,

among, of) and action (exertion of energy or influence). The term interaction is

usually taken to mean to act reciprocally or to act on each other. Similar terms

— cooperate, coact, engage — are used to express mutual or reciprocal act

or relation.

Much talk of the “communicating corporation” and the “learning/flexible

organisation” subsumes the social phenomenon of interaction. Indeed, in recent

years the advent of much chatter about “relationship marketing” and “learning

communities” has included the notion of “interactive communication.” This is

muddling, and the discussion here will seek to reclaim the corporate social

grouping as a purposeful system (Checkland & Holwell, 1998) and system for

interaction (Deetz, 1992, 1995), in which communication is a mode of

interaction, rather than the means. Can, then, interaction produce emergent

outcomes, such as a “third way of knowing” (Shotter, 1993) that is not possible

in monologue?

The ubiquitous term “Information and Communication Technology” (ICT) is

reviewed through this philosophical analysis. This is in pursuit of conceptual

synthesis, not merely technological convergence. Deetz’s analysis of human

interaction shows that information and communication is right — so where does

that leave us with a conception of interaction, seemingly synonymous with

communication, as the locus of attention? This discussion will move the

explanation from “Information Technology” to “Interaction Technology” —

this importantly reintroduces the people into the system — a social interaction

system with supporting technologies.

The discussion will recognise that our technicist notion of communicating

inhibits the hard work of connection by attending to improvements to the wiring,

whilst the task of building worlds together is neglected. Communication is more

a moral problem than a problem solvable by semantics, psychology, or

telecommunications. The informational conception of interaction is inherently

monological. The notion of an “Interaction Society” implicates dialogue, unless

interaction is taken to be nothing more than mutually reactive or directive dyadic

monologues (engaged in reciprocal manipulation). The notion of a “Communication

Society” seems to be therapeutically valuable, but care has to be taken

that “communication” is not taken merely as the transmission of cognitions

(products of cognition) between selves.

The widespread adoption of mobile telephones and other ICTs and PCTs may

indicate that we are creating an Interaction Society. If the advertising rhetoric

is to be believed, use of such devices enables more talk, and indeed much social

interaction is now mediated by electronic devices. But when some of us choose

to “interact” through the intermediary of a wireless connection, even by use of

“text” in place of audible speech, rather than to co-locate for conversation,

what kind of interaction is possible? I claim that we need to address this as a

political and ethical problem, and not just a technical problem.

Resources drawn upon for this philosophical analysis will include Peters’

history of communication, Deetz’s analysis of corporate communication processes

and power relations, Checkland’s and Vickers’ respective analyses of

the social process of appreciative systems, Luhmann’s critical theory of

society, Simmel’s sociological analysis of human interactions, Myerson’s

reflection on ‘mobilised’ communication, and a thorough review of the concepts

of interaction and dialogue, in both practical and ethical terms.

Interaction as Problematic

Interaction is one of a number of ideas, such as information and communication,

that have relatively recently entered day-to-day discussion around our underlying

longing for action at a distance and connection or contact across the chasm

of human separation (Peters, 1999). What I find curious is why we nowadays

notice “interaction” and centre the idea as a social phenomenon and basis for

action? Katz & Aakhus (2002) report a range of investigations on the ideal of

“perpetual contact.” Is the notion of the “Interaction Society” supported, even

prompted, by the presupposed ideal of “perpetual contact” as the means to

interact and communicate socially, or at least providing potential contact with

anyone at any time or place? The advent of “personal communication technologies”

(PCTs) seems to manifest the “presumed natural progression of humans

toward the ideal of open, transparent communication” (op. cit., p. 9). The good

person communicating well maintains both contact and availability, yet a person

is bad and communication is poor when a person is prevented from being an

open, authentic communicator. Nowadays, electronic devices are “naturally”

included in what would otherwise be a face-to-face dyad or small group. Our

theories about communication have ignored technology, except as a mass

medium, a weakness that Katz & Aakhus aspire to set right.

The common sense everyday notion of social interaction originally centred on

co-presence. Goffman (1983), for example, took interaction as the event that

occurs during, and by virtue of, co-presence. Social interaction transpires in

social situations in which two or more persons are physically in one another’s

response presence. This does not require co-presence, but is altered by the

insertion of a mediating technology. Nowadays, the common-place meaning is

something like “action at a distance” or “mutually responsive communication.”

This could seemingly be mediated by electronic connection.

We are currently going through a transitional period, standing at the intersection

of the industrial society from the past and the so-called Interaction Society of

the future (with many others labels: post-industrial society, information age,

communication age, the age of Aquarius — all suggestive of our longing for

“being” together). Social critic Hillaire Belloc saw capitalism as the unstable

transitional period between two stable periods. In transitional periods, the

grounds for activities of the outmoded period will always lose significance,

whilst new models of operation come into circulation to replace them. For the

future, actors need to strive to understand their actions in a broader social frame

of reference. One characteristic of this time is a shift from a mass production

approach towards smaller units, both in work organisation and administration.

Small-scale community, in which social bondage prevailed, was displaced by

large-scale society through the process of industrialisation, bringing freedom to

participants. Most interactors were then strangers. Now we see the reascendance

of social units on a human scale. Various networks have emerged

to enable communication between these units. Indeed, a characteristic feature

of the Interaction Society is the emergence into consciousness of various

networks in work groups and in private life.

The idea of a life among others in which social interaction is a prominent and

frequent activity is appealing. We all feel strong social pressure to interact. How

else are we to resolve problems of politics, knowledge, religion, rights, and

morals? But, in an era of inserting (mostly electronic) mediations into our actual

and potential relationships, are we really justified in our anticipations of

personal security and satisfaction? What are we hoping for as members of the

Interaction Society? Is this a hope forlorn?

While modernism championed the individual, and fragmented the unit of social

community, post-modernism (or whatever we can call what succeeds

industrialisation) attends to the interaction of the parts. Recently, too, developments

of a predominantly economic/technical nature have undermined the

sovereignty of the individual as rational reasoner (Gergen, 1991; Sampson,


Manuel Castells (1996, for example) has said more than a little about the

emergence of the network society (the basic structure of which has a networking

logic). Several writers on the information society (especially from Finland,

for some reason) have said that we can characterise post-industrial society as

a network of networks that “process information,” with the primary production

being more knowledge.

I want to apply my critical social constructionist review of human interaction

(informational vs. communicational) to say something about the problem of the

idea of interactive communication (that isn’t communicational/dialogical —

controlling reproduction, but rather informational/monological — liberating


Are these terms referring to different phenomena? — Interactive Society

(Castells, 1996), Interaction Society, and Network Society. Is interaction (in

a particular manner) a fundamental characteristic of a Network Society?

The centrality of interaction in work-flow has identified interactional processes

(Strauss, 1985) of persuading, teaching, negotiating, manipulating, and coercInformational

ing in the workplace. Task performance is articulated with that of others

through interactions before and after the task (Strauss, 1988). Alignment in the

flow of work is accomplished through interaction.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is a broad term covering several

configurations of communication processes — it is referring not so much to a

form of communication, so much as to a set of arrangements or conditions

within which forms of communication can arise. With the advent of the Internet

there have emerged new transaction “marketplaces,” which create more

efficient means of exchange. But can we accept a conflation of “transaction”

with “interaction?” Whilst the growth of Information and Communication

Technology (ICT) use appears to allow more interaction, much of it is

automated between machine and person, or machine with machine. “Hightouch”

interactions can’t be automated, but the central economic effect of ICT

is to free people from interactive activities — by enabling communication —

people can be in touch in absence from a distance. Yet, distance matters (Olson

& Olson, 2000) in that synchronous and asynchronous interaction arise in colocation

and mediated/distributed spatial conditions, respectively. The advent

of ICTs has established an expectation of easy communication and coordinated

accomplishment of difficult work even though remotely located and rarely

overlapping in time.

The problem as I see it is that the increasingly popular idea of “interaction” is

being taken as synonymous with “transaction.” For me, the Transaction Society

doesn’t sound so good, and this switch of terminology helps to veil the

unpalatable contemporary emphasis on impersonal social arrangements. George

Soros (2000) concludes from his analysis of the emerging new economy within

the dominant forms of capitalist society that we currently live in a Transactional

Society — not an Interaction Society — in which relations among people are

guided by instrumental rational calculations of self-interest. To be a Relational

Society, we would have to shift to relations that are guided by calculations of

common interest. In a Transactional Society we talk of “touch points” and

“contacts,” rather than of colleagues, acquaintances, friends, relatives, partners,

community, and so on. Scarbrough’s (1995) critique of Williamson’s

(1975) concept of transaction cost in his “new institutional economics” shows

that by defining the transaction as the unit of analysis, Williamson aimed to take

the debate about organizational forms outside the realm of social relations.

Scarbrough argues that whilst transaction is a category of socioeconomic

interaction, there is both economic exchange and social relation in a transaction

— the latter underpins the former. The forms of organization governance —

economic exchange (market-based control through material incentives) and

social control (hierarchy-based control through social relations) — are coexistent

mutually dependent dimensions of a transactional continuum (in which

the network is the hybrid form of governance).