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Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications

Alyssa Arbuckle, Alison Hedley, Shaun Macpherson, Alyssa McLeod, Jana Millar Usiskin, Daniel Powell, Jentery Sayers, Emily Smith, Michael Stevens, Authors

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Imitation Versus Mediation: Individual Concerns (Shaun)

Should a mediated interface be "invisible"? Does smoothness engender innovative thought? How does an explicitly constructed mediation initiate a new communicative process? The process of creating a model for a Scalar-based online symposium orbits the question of whether the invisibility (or ubiquity) of digital media hinders or allows for creative collaboration and critical reflection via the removal of the physical space of a traditional, face-to-face symposium. I examine this question by attempting to contextualize (in a New Media sense) the works of two twentieth-century theorists: Martin Heidegger, whose phenomenological theory of Vorhandenheit (present-to-handedness) represents the potential disruption of intellectual activity via alteration of the mediated environment; and Walter Benjamin, whose "Theses on the Philosophy of History" touches on the manner in which thought may be stimulated by such an alteration.


"The less we just stare at the thing … the more actively we use it, the more original our relation to it becomes and the more undisguisedly it is encountered as what it is, as a useful thing."
(Martin Heidegger, Being and Time)

Heidegger's theory of "presence-at-hand" states that we don't see ubiquitous objects or processes until they break, go missing, or otherwise stop performing the task that they are ontically associated with. In a digital sense, invisibility involves a purposeful process of design, one which yields a successful model for such invisibility. Such design must account for the relative complexity of the object in question, for the phenomenological breakdown of the digital object can have a jarring effect on the user, who is faced with his own failure to comprehend the process (see Chun, Programmed 9). In other words, presence-at-hand takes a distinctive form: as Willard McCarty states, "the failures of the model . . . point . . . to our ignorance of a particular thing" ("Knowing" n. pag.).

With this phenomenological trope in mind, a question specific to my project arose: should the model for an online symposium attempt to imitate the face-to-face environment? If so, the construction of the model would consist in part of mitigating technological barriers (such as technophobia among participants and other logistics of training and organization). Such a design hearkens to what Mark Weiser coined "ubiquitous computing." In his seminal 1991 article, Weiser underlines the rationale for ubiquitous computing design: "the hundreds of processors and displays are not a 'user interface' like a mouse and windows, just a pleasant and effective place to get things done." Weiser's point is that the more ubiquitous our encounter with digital media becomes, the more we ought to be freed from our encounters with interfaces (he goes so far as to equate ubiquitous computing with a "refreshing walk in the forest"). Digital media must necessarily be reduced to a readiness-to-hand to avoid hindering thoughtful exchanges. Weiser was highly critical of the model of the "desktop" in computing design—he instead advocated for design that sought to imitate real desktops via tablets and pads "strewn about the desktop."

"A Configuration Pregnant with Tensions"

However, there is another way to consider the conditions for instigating thoughtful exchanges. Walter Benjamin, in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," argues for an acknowledgement of the tensions that underlie the process of progress and thought. He writes that "thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad" (264–65). Here, Benjamin is critiquing historicism's often blind eye to the unfolding of history, but his words can be applied to challenge Weiser's idea that ubiquitous computing provides a path to creative and intellectual emancipation. Benjamin's quote points towards another way to consider the model for an online symposium, in that such "arrest of thought" can be a vital component to critical communication. Such a model would embrace the tensions inherent in the ways we communicate with each other via a novel mediated space. The attempt at imitation (the end-goal of Weiser's mission) is abandoned in favour of new potentialities of thought.

"Oiling the Wheel" Versus "Grinding the Gear"

Wendy Chun, in her essay "The Enduring Ephemeral," challenges Geert Lovink's "theory on the run"—the idea that the speed of progress denies space for reflection (on the process itself). Chun herself, however, feels that "we need to think beyond speed" (153). I'd like to also challenge Lovink's idea by suggesting that a model-for that accounts for a tense "slowing down" of the reflective process (i.e., a mediation that itself causes a tension), that, as Benjamin suggests, arrests thought and so contributes to thinking, actually provides a space for novel critical reflections on the process itself. It is not speed of change per se, or the invisibility of the interface, but the interplay between tension/efficiency that stifles or encourages critical reflection.

Author: Shaun Macpherson
Word Count: 795
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