Final Comment

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In the age of affordable (by some) information and communication technology,

there is lots of talk about “communication.” It is widely agreed commonsense

that it is a necessary activity, as a means to various ends, and that we need to

be good at doing it to function well in contemporary society. We also now

popularly recognise that “one-way communication” is inferior to “two-way

communication” or “dialogue.” Thus, “interactive communication” is a solution

to the problem of weak and unsuccessful communication, or communication

breakdown.

But, this is a wrong and unhelpful commonsense discussion of good communication

and dialogue. The primary concern should be human interaction (‘working

together’), and we need to discern and explain two modes. It is dialogic

interaction that is needed for creativity, celebration of difference, and productive

liberation from dominatory discursive closure. Communication taken as an

act of self-expression is too limiting, and leads to ICT development and

deployment that is no more than mass reproduction of fixed meaning.

Until we have the necessary widespread conceptual clarity, we will at best try

to implement political participation processes with an inappropriate explanation

and understanding of communication and information. We really need to

break out of the taken-for-granted instrumental rationality that pervades daily

life, so that we can re-insert a productive explanation and understanding of

participation in social processes of communicating and informing. Attention on

“interaction” should be a prerequisite for dealing with communication and

information.

The Case of Mobilizing Communication

To illustrate the destructive shift in our conception of communication, I have

drawn from an excellent little book (with a big conclusion) entitled Heidegger,

Habermas and the Mobile Phone (Myerson, 2001). Here I attempt to distill

Myerson’s 75 pages into a focused case study that, I believe, shows how

human interaction is distorted from talk to “communication” by the insertion of

the mobile phone into (it sometimes seems almost) everyone’s hands.

We have a western philosophical tradition of understanding that it is human to

talk, that we become human through being with one another (Heidegger, 1962).

Jaspers (1932) tells us that it is our (unfulfillable) moral duty as human beings

to communicate with all others. For Heidegger, communication is discourse in

which the hearer reaches understanding. For Habermas (1984 — remember

George Orwell’s great book?) communicative action is the use of language

oriented to reaching understanding, and this is distinct from instrumental/

strategic action that is about taking control in pursuit of personal goal fulfillment.

Yet we are being seduced by mass-market promotion of mobile phones and

other personal communication technologies (PCTs) with the promise that

“universal communication” is quicker, richer, and an essential part of business,

commerce, and society, and that this can replace talk and conversation. Talk

is to be just one part of a web of uses for the mobile phone, and everyone and

everything is available to us through a keypad and screen.

This “mobilization” is based on a change to the meaning of the “communication”

concept. To be able to communicate is now to be free — to get what you want

— to be in control as an individual (recall Stacey’s point about interdependence!).

Communication, when “mobilized,” is a solitary action and works best

when there is only one person involved. In connecting to the ever-expanding

network, we can reap the benefits of large-scale universal interconnection, but

this is as separate individuals in pursuit of our own goals. The great selling point

is that it’s cheaper to send a text message than to talk and that it doesn’t require

real-time availability of the two persons “communicating.” Interaction gets

promoted as a means to an end — to satisfy other wants. We are to

communicate to “say what we want (to have).”

Alternatively, speaking philosophically, we can define the act of communication

as not one person’s action (I), but two-person contact or small group

engagement (We). Imagine one hand clapping! For Habermas, we communicate

in order to disclose and make understood our “internal talk,” not to satisfy

a want. He sees true communication as the slow, distinct “conversation”

through which parties seek a deeper contact. Any other interaction is information.

Human agents conversing are not sources and destinations of message

flow. Yet, ask those around you to define “communication” and they will tell you

that “objective” data is duplicated and distributed. Much of the interactivity of

the “Interactive Society” — that is “interactive systems” and “interactive

marketing and “interactive communications” — is one person with the system

which behaves like a human agent, but is more efficient and “intelligent.”

Meaning is bypassed as too slow a medium for the ideal interaction.

Habermas distinguishes system integration as people bound together by fixed

common rules and procedures, from social integration in which people stay

together through a common understanding that they continually work out

together. Without communication there can be no true sense of free choice —

only procedures of the system to follow. Mobile phones are not really

“communication devices,” but access tools that enable realization of the

potential for imperfect, partial, compromised authentic human communication.

In Habermas’ terms, this is a system for organizing people in relief (or

substitution) of full dialogue. This in contrast to the “lifeworld” — the shared

sense of the significance of human actions and experiences. Note this is not

about isolated individuals alone. So, mobilization is not liberation, as the

vendors would have us believe, but constraint. The system does our “communication”

for us! There is the flow of data, messages, images, and so on.

Habermas is careful and anxious to warn us that our democracy is at stake. The

social integration we crave is dependent on consensus through true communication,

but is repressed and replaced with anonymous non-dialogic socialization.

Now, back to the notion of interaction. This process socializes people into a

(collective) society. The question is how do we want that to happen? Can we

be satisfied with the cooperation of individuals independently following the

demands of a system, or do we need collective understanding. With the

mobilized conception of communication, there is no distinction! In my view, we

have to decide whether communication is a function of systems (the exchange

of messages) or the human pursuit of understanding (dialogue). With the

proliferation of ICTs and PCTs we are witness to, and participant in, isolated

individuals making sporadic contact for functional purposes, hooked into a

message system that multiplies and reproduces messages without human

agents, deriving information by data processing. These messages have purposes,

but no reasons. For Habermas, “rationality” is the potential that people

have to act and speak in ways for which they could give reasons. Expressions

have meaning insofar as the speaker could give reasons for them. As Myerson

succinctly puts it “to make such messages definitive for mainstream communication

is to exclude most of the possibilities of human expression” (2001, p.

41). Mobile communication has no scope for reasons, only for getting what you

want.

For Habermas, interaction is gestures that serve as stimulus eliciting a response

with insight, through interpretation and understanding. Communicative rationality

is to grasp the meaning and understand the reasons behind and the

potential weaknesses. The ideal dialogue looks like a debate. Expressions can

be defended against criticism. This is a far cry from taking “communicating

with” to mean making a connection with a system.

By, then, the “Interaction Society,” do we mean the web of connected persons

with mobile phones and Internet access devices that have been produced to sell

to us? Or do we mean more or other than that? The technology is not the first

or primary concern. The pressing issue is not how we interact (means), but how,

when, and why we interact (mode). Mobilised communication threatens to

make a minor, special part of communication (information) into the central case.

Mobile technologies are tools for informing, so mobile communication is far

from merely “wireless” — it is not communication as we have previously

known it.