Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Peddling petals

As if out of the blue I am forced to reconsider the pair of terms *sociopetal*:
  • (of a grouping of people) arranged so that each can see and interact with the others
and sociofugal:
  • (of a grouping of people) arranged so that each can maintain some privacy from the others
Because in my latest review (of Phatic Technologies) I wrote:
If "phatic" is generally understood as an emphasis on sociality then forms of terminating communication (i.e. acts like leave-taking, parting and, on the Internet, blocking) are naturally pushed out of the picture. For further research this necessitates a separate category of phatic investigation focused on unsociability, ungregariousness, avoidance, absence, shyness, social withdrawal, isolation, etc. which for classification purposes could be called minus-phatics (there is ample research in social sciences for this avenue).
It just so happened that I had to look up the word psychedelic, which I knew to mean "mind manifesting" due to greek etymology psyche+delos, because it was coined relatively recently, in 1957. Well, it turns out that the very same British psychiatrist who coined the word psychedelic, Humphry Osmond, also coined sociopetal and sociofugal:
Osmond began a line of research into what he called "socio-architecture" to improve patient settings, coining the terms "sociofugal" and "sociopetal", starting Robert Sommer's career, and contributing to environmental psychology. (Sociofugal refers to a grouping of people arranged so that each can see and interact with the others, while sociopetal refers to a grouping of people arranged so that each can maintain some privacy from the others.) [from Wikipedia on Humphry Osmond
Besides the fact that different sources confuse the meaning of each term (wikipedia and wiktionary have switched the meanings and it's impossible to tell which is which) I think I need to look into Osmond's writings some day because there's no need for something like minus-phatics if we could just classify sociopetal phatics as the emphasis on promoting contact, prolonging communication, and maintaining relationships, and conversely, sociofugal phatics as the emphasis on terminating contact, discontinuing communication, and breaking off relationships. To confirm that these notions suit phatic studies one only needs to consult a three-page excerpt from Edward Hall's The Hidden Dimension (1966):
Several years ago, a talented and perceptive physician named Humphry Osmond was asked to direct a large health and research center in Saskatchewan. His hospital was one of the first in which the relationship between semifixed-feature space and behavior was clearly demonstrated. Osmond had noticed that some spaces, like railway waiting rooms, tend to keep people apart. These he called sociofugal spaces. Others, such as the booths in the old-fashioned drugstore or the tables at a French sidewalk café, tend to bring people together. These he called sociopetal. The hospital of which he was in charge was replete with sociofugal spaces and had very few which might be called sociopetal. Furthermore, the custodial staff and nurses tended to prefer the former to the latter because they were easier to maintain. Chairs in the halls, which would be found in little circles after visiting hours, would soon be lined up neatly in military fashion, in rows along the walls.

One situation which attracted Osmond's attention was the newly built "model" female geriatric ward. Everything was new and shiny, neat and clean. There was enough space, and the colors were cheerful. The only trouble was that the longer the patients stayed in the ward, the less they seemed to talk to each other. Gradually, they were becoming like the furniture, permanently and silently glued to the walls at regular intervals between the beds. In addition, they all seemed depressed.

Sensing that the space was more sociofugal than sociopetal, Osmond put a perceptive young psychologist, Robert Sommer, to work to find out as much as he could about the relationship of furniture to conversations. Looking for a natural setting which offered a number of different situations in which people could be observed in conversations, Sommer selected the hospital cafeteria, where 36 by 72-inch tables accommodated six people. As the figure below indicates, these tables provided six different distances and orientations of the bodies in relation to each other.


Enough small tables so that every patient had a place would provide additional territoriality and an opportunity to keep magazines, books, and writing materials. If the tables were square, they would also help to structure relationships between patients so that there was a maximum opportunity to converse.

Once the staff had been cajoled into participating in the experiments, the small tables were moved in and the chairs arranged around them. At first, the patients resisted. They had become accustomed to the placement of "their" chairs in particular spots, and they did not take easily to being moved around by others. By now, the staff was involved to the point of keeping the new arrangements reasonably intact until it was established as an alternative rather than an annoying feature to be selectively inattended. When this point had been reached, a repeat count of conversations was made. The number of conversations had doubled, while reading had tripled, possibly because there was now a place to keep reading material. Similar restructuring of the dayroom met with the same resistance and the same ultimate increase in verbal interaction.

At this point, three things must be said. Conclusions drawn from observations made in the hospital situation just described are not universally applicable. That is, across-the-corner-at-right-angles is conductive only to: (a) conversation of certain types between (b) persons in certain relationships and (c) in very restricted cultural settings. Second, what is sociofugal in one culture may be sociopetal in another. Third, sociofugal space is not necessarily bad, nor is sociopetal space universally good. What is desirable is flexibility and congruence between design and function so that there is a variety of spaces, and people can be involved or not, as the occasion and mood demand. The main point of the Canadian experiment for us is its demonstration that the structuring of semifixed-features can have a profound effect on behavior and that this is effect is measurable. This will come as no surprise to housewives who are constantly trying to balance relationship of fixed-feature enclosures to arrangement of their semifixed furniture. Many have had the experience of getting a room nicely arranged, only to find that conversation was impossible if the chairs were left nicely arranged. (Hall 1966: 108-110)
Osmond most likely wrote about this in 1958 in a paper titled "The Relationship between Architect and Psychiatrist", but I can't find access to it, so I'll just let it be for now. If I find anything in phatic studies that would allow for alignment with these terms then I'll take this up again.

etymology - everyone's a winner

I was a bit concerned that maybe my etymological investigations had gone down the wrong path, but it looks like things are OK.
From "The Sophist", Focus Philosophical Library, Brann, Kalkavage, and Salem (trans.).

Monday, September 21, 2015

something digital

I'm currently writing my "Review of phatic technologies" and some moments from the quotes you brought out from Baudrillard (1976) in the tactile and the digital are not unconnected with the issues of phatic technologies.

We definitely need to develop our ideas about the social power aspects of phatic communion, i.e. how "staying in touch" has become a control mechanism. Hopefully papers on phatics will yield ways to approach this (thus far my expectations in that regard have been more than exceeded). It also suits me well because the topic of "regulation" is something I'm very keen on.

In any case, Baudrillard's comments on the neutralization of content through the question/answer and stimulus/response form and how the cycles of meaning become infinitely shorter the cycles of this form can be tied in with the advent of the so-called "database culture" that Vincent Miller ("New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture", 2008) refers back to Lev Manovich (The Language of New Media, 2001). To quote through Miller:
[New media is dominated by cultural objects and products which] do not tell stories, they do not have a beginning or end, in fact, they do not have any development thematically that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other. (Manovich 2001: 213; in Miller 2008: 393)
Although only tangentially related to what Baudrillard is discussing, the logic of database culture seems like the kind of neutralization of content that most characterizes phatic culture (Miller argues that this is where media/communications culture is leading to). Namely, that instead of substantive exchange of information and mutual understanding of life-experineces, etc. the dominant form of communication becomes the discrete, 140-character, package or unit of information, displayed in a chronological order without any contextualizing feature.

Miller, I admit, gets a bit paranoid in this regard and argues that the success of Twitter may indeed be a ploy, a strategic concoction by marketing researchers to turn social media into a digestable database of what is important to people. This contention relies on the fact that tweets are much easier to systematically data mine for information about product use than blogs or forums where there is too much context and variation for references to products to be reliable source for marketing statistics. Personally I don't subscribe to this paranoia but I see how it can make sense.

The fragmentation of images into successive sequence and stimuli to which the only response is either yes or no - I mean, is there a more exact description of the logic of Tinder? You see a face and decide intuitively, within a fraction of a second, whether you like the person's appearance or not. Consequently you swife left or right, yes or no. This is much easier than social networking sites that rely either a 10-point scale (e.g. HotOrNot) or some form of commenting. "Binarization" would describe this logic well, for it reduces the resulting information into a single byte.

When Baudrillard argues that we are moving from a visual universe to a tactile one so that distance reduces and reflection becomes impossible (I'm turning the phraseology around), I had a flashback to Nerdwriter1's analysis of "The Pain of Art House Films" where he argues that art house films are more ambiguous, visually appealing in the sense of giving the viewer the chance to look around and take in the imagery, as opposed to a fast-paced action movie like the latest Mad Max, where, in order for the viewer to even comprehend what is going on in split-second cuts, the director has focused everything relevant in the same area of the screen, so that you're always going to look where the director, umm, directed your gaze.

The same applies to social media in a sense. Returning the question-answer format, there are now more sinister methods for this operation. The response is known beforehand, either through experience or, why not, data mining. An example that comes to mind was the instance when Kanye West made a track with Paul McCartney. Some clever marketing people took to twitter with messages saying something to the effect that Kanye West is promoting this up-and-comer artist. It was known beforehand that this will arouse a lot of people to resond with "What? Don't they know who the Beatles are?" Basically, they used to their advantage the psychological effect, I forget what it's called (it has a specific name), the need to correct people, to go, "Well, actually..."

This is disconcerting because as we learn more about how the human mind operates, what captures our attention and causes us to respond in a predictable manner, there are always going to be people who think "hey! I think I can use this to my advantage". Social media on the whole offers plenty of opportunity to apply these sorts of manipulations. I can't say at the moment what it is, but I'll hopefully come to a better understanding of it once I finish the review of phatic technologies and develop those ideas further with whatever I'll be taking up next (I have a few good papers in mind).

So, yeah, some yarn. I'll try to post more on here. After writing so much text in a quasi-monotone academic style it feels really good to get informal and and kinda "open-ended" to develop some thoughts that otherwise wouldn't have a context. s

Saturday, September 19, 2015

the tactile and the digital

From Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), pp. 61, 63, 64-65, 67-68.

I was reminded of this passage by something Rasmus wrote: "I'd like to convey that one of the prime characterstics of Phatica is that s/he is dedicated to taking over the field of communication. Most everything phatics has to do with can be, and is, elsewhere discussed with different terms. Phatica is constantly conquering foreign territory."

I replied: "I could also mention a critique from Baudrillard, who talked about how modern communication has become entirely tactical -- similar root word to tactile -- and he would say that 'staying in touch' has morphed into a more sinister control mechanism. Not sure if we want to bring in this sort of philosophical polemic but if we do, I can dig it up."

It was a really tangential riff, but I'm glad that I brought it up now that I've read Rasmus's Review of John Laver's "Communicative Functions of Phatic Communion" (1975). Not only are the works under discussion situated near each other in time...

Here we start to see some of the "dark side" of nonverbal communication. The function of control or regulation is what Baudrillard focuses on in these essays. Although Laver talked about micro-social (presumed to be basically benign) control or mutual regulation between individuals, the quotes here look at the idea of micro-regulation that is "postsocial".
Digitality is among us. It haunts all the messages and signs of our society, and we can clearly locate its most concrete form in the test, the question/answer, the stimulus/response. All content is neutralised by a continuous process of orchestrated interrogations, verdicts and ultimatums to be decoded, which this time no longer come from the depths of the genetic code but still possess the same tactical indeterminacy - the cycles of meaning become infinitely shorter in the cycles of the question/answer, the bit or the return of a minuscule quantity of energy/information to its point of departure. This cycle merely describes the perpetual reactualisation of the same models. The equivalent of the total neutralisation of signifieds by the code is the instantaneous verdict of fashion or of every billboard or TV advertising message. Everywhere supply devours demand, the question devours the answer, either absorbing and regurgitating it in a decodable form, or inventing it and anticipating its predictable corroboration. Everywhere the same 'scenario' of 'trials and errors' (the burden of which, in laboratory tests, is borne by guinea-pigs), the scenario of the spectrum of choices on offer or the multiple choice ('test your personality'). The test is everywhere the fundamental social form of control, which works by infinitely dividing practices and responses.
This is reminiscent of Rasmus's comments on "Make it Stick" - insofar as the multiple choice question is not a good way to learn.  But of course if the issue is regulation, then learning isn't a top priority.

The following also reminds me of also of our discussion of the "phatic image":
Contemplation is impossible, images fragment perception into success­ive sequences and stimuli to which the only response is an instantaneous yes or no - reaction time is maximally reduced. The film no longer allows you to contemplate it, it interrogates you directly. According to McLuhan, it is in this sense that the modern media demand greater immediate participation, incessant response and total plasticity (Benjamin compares the camera-man's operation to the surgeon's: tactility and manipulation). Messages no longer have an informational role, they test and take polls, ultimately so as to control ('contra-role' in the sense that all your responses are already inscribed in the 'role', on the anticipated register of the code). Editing [montage] and encoding in fact demand that the recipient disman­tle [demonte] and decode in accordance with the same process. Every reading of a message is thus nothing more than a perpetual test of the code.
As with Laver, there is an emphasis on roles, but now the macro-social infiltrates micro-social relations.  To introduce an anacronism: "the audience is essentially a render farm."

Apparently McLuhan is the one responsible for the emphasis on tactility, with statements like this (quoted in an endnote): "The TV image obliges us to always be filling in the blanks on the screen in a convulsive, kinetic and tactile sensory participation."
No more true and false since we can no longer find any gap between question and answer. In the light of these tests, intelligence, like opinion and more generally every process of signification, is reduced to the 'capacity to produce contrasting reactions to an increasing range of appropriate stimuli’. This whole analysis directly reflects McLuhan's formula 'The Medium is the Message'. It is in fact the medium, the very mode of editing, cutting, questioning, enticement, and demand by the medium that rules the process of signification. So we can understand why McLuhan saw an era of tactile communication in the era of electronic mass-media. In this we are closer in effect to the tactile than we are to the visual universe, where there is greater distance, and reflection is always possible. At the moment that touching loses its sensory, sensual value for us ('touching is an interaction of the senses rather than a simple contact between a skin and an object'), it is possible that it might once more become the schema of a universe of communication - but this time as a field of tactile and tactical simulation where the message becomes a 'message', a tentacular enticement, a test. In every field we are tested, probed and sampled; the method is 'tactical' and the sphere of communication 'tactile'. Not to mention the ideology of 'contact', which in all of its forms, seeks to replace the idea of social relations. A whole strategic configuration revolves around the test (the question/answer cell) as it does around a molecular command-code.
Finally, the section ends up with a discussion of the binary form per se:
The systems of the 'advanced democracies' become stable through the formula of the two-party system. The de facto monopoly remains in the hands of a homogeneous political class, from the left to the right, but must not be exercised in this way. This is because single party rule, totalitarianism, is an unstable form which drains the political stage and can no longer ensure the feedback of public opinion, the minimal current in the integrated circuit that constitutes the transistorised political machine.

common words

I wonder if the most common words carry a significant phatic weight?