The causal powers of media

In The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp take issue with the primacy of face-to-face interaction that has so often been assumed within social thought. Our embodied interaction is taken to be primary, often assumed to be unmediated, with the mediation of interaction through technology seen as additional to it. From loc 697:

Berger and Luckmann, as was common in sociology for a long time, wrote as if there is first face-to-face ‘everyday life’ and then there is a supplement: what we do, technologically, to mediate that everyday life. This was hardly true through most of human history, at least since the discovery of writing, but today it would simply be bizarre to ignore how the reality of everyday life is inseparably linked with media, when supermarket checkouts read our credit cards with our personal data, when our everyday communication happens to a high degree via mobile devices, platforms and interactive systems, and when children learn to play through the means of internet-connected tablets. Under these circumstances it makes no sense at all to think of everyday reality as a ‘pure experience’ that can be contrasted with a (somehow secondary) ‘mediated experience’. Everyday reality, from the beginning, is in many respects mediated, which means that the complex social world of interconnections constructed from everyday life’s foundations is mediatized.

Much rests on how we conceptualise face-to-face interaction. If we demarcate it as a sphere of interaction which is in some sense given, it obscures the role of media in shaping such interactions and how these interactions in turn contribute to the shaping of media. As they write on loc 632:

We cannot analyse the social world via a simple division between ‘pure’ face-to-face communication and a separate presentation of the world to us ‘through’ media. Many of the communicative practices by which we construct our social world are media-related ones. Our daily communication comprises much more than direct face-to-face communication: mediated communication –by television, phones, platforms, apps, etc. –is interwoven with our face-to-face communication in manifold ways. Our face-to-face interaction is continuously interwoven with media-related practices: while we talk to someone, we might check something on our mobile phones, get text messages, refer to various media contents.

The challenge lies in conceptualising such interweaving. If we see interaction as constituted through its mediation, it becomes difficult to unpick how particular interactions might be shaped in particular ways by particular media. This is why I think a causal powers approach to media could be so valuable, even if it’s currently rather underdeveloped. This is what I think Couldry and Hepp do, albeit using a different terminology, in their analysis of longer term processes of mediatization. Each of these four changes, discussed on loc 918, make specific claims about how the causal powers of media facilitate the emergence of new dynamics in face-to-face interaction:

But, unimaginably for Schutz or anyone writing up to the 1980s, even our mediated communication can have enhancements which make them closer in specific responses to the face-to-face communication; for instance, video calls with simultaneous text messaging and email stream, enabling two parties to share simultaneous focused attention on the same external communicative stream, that is, an email attachment or website (contrast the simple phone call). A second deepening is the embedding not just of particular communicative streams into everyday life, but of the inputs from past communications (continuous streams of information from both Mitwelt and Umwelt): think of the feedback loop that operates when, while communicating with somebody else face to face, we are also checking information on earlier interactions on our smartphone, involving other communication partners. We are involved in a ‘multi-level’ construction of the social world, acting on various ‘levels’ of communication at the same time. Third, and also unimaginable to Schutz, is the already discussed continuous availability of media as a current resource in face-to-face communication, from showing pictures on one’s digital device to the use of video even in the most intimate of settings. And fourth, we are living through an integration of all these three shifts into the habits and norms of all communicative behaviour, both face to face and mediated. Increasingly we expect that our comments and gestures can be mediated for future commentary, circulation, etc., unless, that is, we insist they should not be re-circulated (Tomlinson, 2007, pp. 94–123).

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