Computers, Phones, and the Internet: Domesticating Information Technology

By Robert Kraut; Malcolm Brynin et al. | Go to book overview

20
Rhythms and Ties
Toward a Pragmatics of Technologically
Mediated Sociability

Christian Licoppe

Zbigniew Smoreda

Almost a century has passed since Georg Simmel (1908) founded his sociology on a dialectic between social structure and interpersonal interaction. In Simmel's perspective, society exists wherever people act reciprocally toward each other. Social forms are woven by such reciprocal action but take on independent life and, in turn, constrain action. This perspective allowed Simmel to analyze various forms of social life. At the time he formulated his structuralist interactionism (Forsé, 2002), Simmel had in mind primarily situations of face-to-face interaction. Nonetheless, there is no reason why we cannot apply this same approach to analyze the role that different kinds of media (e.g., telephone rather than face-to-face conversation) have in interaction. Simmel's sociology therefore can serve as a framework for analyzing how forms of association are changing in a context where digital technologies have become widespread. The formats in which interpersonal interactions take place were already complex, either in the home (Albert, 1993), or in the office (Fraenkel, 1995), before the advent of information technology, as research on different forms of writing and inscriptions formats has shown. However, the massive development of IT has led to a significant increase in the range of interactional devices of which people may avail themselves. So, alongside the standard household telephone, we have public phones and portable phones—both of which today may permit the sending of text as well as voice messages—and all the communication services that can be used through a computer connected to a network (i.e., e-mail, chat sites, discussion forums, instant message services, and so on). It is therefore important to examine this dimension in which a growing number of technologies of social interaction come into play, because the sense of each of these different technologies depends not only on their suitability for a particular kind of user and a particular type of exchange but also on the position of each alternative vis-à-vis others in a technological landscape that has become increasingly crowded and varied. The concepts of “interaction” and “interpersonal exchange” are too general here, for they both lump together and obscure two distinct forms of complexity. The first concerns the contents and formats of an exchange; in other words, the contents of the conversations and the way conversations are organized in discursive genres, which make up, together with intervening face-to-face meetings, the warp and woof of social ties. The second concerns the diverse technical means that affect the sense of these discursive activities and the way they are produced,

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