Guest post: Designs on Conversation

This post is based on my talk given at the Tate Britain event, as part of a series of events for the AHRC funded Digital Transformations Research Network.


‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice … ‘now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!’ – Alice in Wonderland

In using social media and engaging with web 2.0 technologies, I often imagine a hidden hashtag, like a date stamp marking us in and out of every little transaction. #AreWeContent? We enter into an online social environment like Alice in her adventures in Wonderland. We are never quite sure of our size and distance in relation to others. We might at times be baffled at the nature of conversations – indeed, who lies behind all the voices we ‘hear’? Like Cheshire Cats they appear to come and go. We can make various adjustments (as Alice might) and in the event we get bored we might soon declare how preposterous it all is. Yet, to avoid disenfranchisement we generally accept a place somewhere within the labyrinth.

Working with students on a Media programme at York St John University, we adopted ethnographic methods to explore both the online and offline experience of various news media and arts organisations, notably Tate Modern and (much smaller in scale) York City Art Gallery. We visited the galleries and we looked at print and TV media at the same time as ‘lurking’ online, in order to explore how the rhetoric of audience participation equates to lived experiences. We can quickly find new media technologies remediate old media formats. Websites often still just publish and promote centrally produced material, and those excitable invitations from broadcast media for audience participation through emails, texts and tweets conflict with heavy-handed moderation, or are simply made meaningless when read out randomly on air.

When asked how we might rate organisations such as the BBC, The Guardian, Independent and Tate, they generally score well in terms of being ‘digitally savvy’. Yet, these organisations might themselves be surprised to find they are viewed as being distant, even anti-social. The graph shown here cannot in anyway be taken as scientific; it is simply the result of a group discussion following 6-8 weeks of low-level, ‘trainee’ ethnographic work. However, it is thought provoking. The York City Art Gallery would be the first to admit they lack a digital strategy, which they tend to see as a resource issue. However, the gallery space itself lacked appeal to the visiting students. A potential problem is that new media gives rise to whole new expectations about cultural experiences. A worrying thought would be that it isn’t just the implementation of new/social media that is lacking, but that we desire culture to be more like an online experience. However, on the right-hand side of the graph the Huffington Post, which represents a purely online and social-media driven approach to reporting the news, is mixed in with the other more traditional media outlets. Interestingly, One&Other – which is particularly relevant to the York area – scores well in terms both of being digitally savvy and sociable. The site describes itself as a social enterprise, offering local news and information:

One&Other is a media brand fit for the 21st century.  Our platforms are the home of local news, culture, and conversations that inspire and empower communities for good. Out goes the negative news agenda and in comes more considered reporting, reviews, and experiences, combined with the long-lost art of storytelling and beautiful design.  […] …we’re making it our mission to re-inject the relevance, intelligence, charm, beauty and purpose back into local media.  We also believe that local media have a responsibility beyond profit that needs to be protected, that is to serve, enlighten, empower and advance communities.

Again, it would be wrong to read too much into these findings, but a picture emerges: The big players, such as the BBC, newspapers, and well-known cultural organisations such as Tate, are well resourced. Often they are trendsetters, yet their concerns for brand, editorial, and/or curatorial control gives rise to significant dilemmas when seeking to engage with audiences. Smaller organisations with more regional or local outreach are often poorly resourced, and/or inhibited about digital strategies (a problem The Space is clearly seeking to remedy). Instead new, digital entrepreneurial initiatives are emerging, which typically focus on user-generated content. As a result, community now becomes its own content, which – to draw on Jean Baudrillard postmodern allusion – runs the risk of turning our map of culture into its own simulacrum; being a ‘map that precedes the territory … that engenders the territory’.

To return to the metaphor of Alice, she is never really content, her adventures being akin to an anxiety dream. The source of Alice’s anxiety is twofold. Firstly, she is aware of being unable to control the dynamics that press upon her. Yet, equally, she is aware everything revolves around her. This kind of double anxiety surfaced during the aforementioned ethnography and the conversation leading to the plotting of the graph above. As expectations rise for greater engagement, so the disappointments loom as individuals reveal just how faraway they are in the act of being in ‘dialogue’ with online platforms.  The anxiety dream is of course the manifest of our latent concerns. We are the content, and it leads us to try desperately to become more content or at ease. In this vein, Jodi Dean, in her book Blog Theory (2010), offers a psychoanalytic reading of the compelling, yet all too often empty experience of being online:

As we share our opinions and upload our videos, there are more opinions to read and videos to watch and then more responses to craft and elements to mash up. And then there are still more responses to read, and as these increase so do the challenges of finding the ones we want … It’s easier to set up a new blog than it is to undertake the ground-level organizational work of building alternatives. It’s also difficult to think through the ways our practices and activities are producing new subjectivities, subjectivities that may well be more accustomed to quick satisfaction and bits of enjoyment than to planning, discipline, sacrifice and delay. – Jodi Dean, Blog Theory.

Dean alerts us both to the enticing nature of online activity, yet warns against confusing such activity with social impact. Similar concerns have come through for the Digital Transformations Research Network when considering the ‘creative relationships between cultural and media organizations and their users’. The new media companies – the likes of Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – are agnostic about the meaning of content. Instead, they provide the means for ‘us’ (whether individuals, communities or organisations) to make the content, and to be happy in our own ‘business’ of making it. As one thoughtful YouTube video puts it, the ‘Machine is Us/ing Us’. To go beyond merely inputting our data into the available systems and platforms, we need to ask what we want from community, collaboration and conversation. In turn, this raises questions about the current set of templates for content, and whether or not we need to design for participation and dialogue in completely new ways.

The Importance of Being Data

I recently attended a ‘Hack for Culture’ event in Liverpool, which brought arts and cultural organisations (including the Everyman Playhouse, Liverpool Philharmonic, and Tate Liverpool) together with Merseyside’s digital and creative industries. The aim was to explore and experiment with a variety of cultural data sets. Data sets are generated through the work of arts organisations, ever eager to locate and understand their audiences. Yet, these same organisations can lack understanding, expertise, or resource to generate something more dynamic and progressive from the data. As reported in The Guardian, the idea behind so-called ‘hack’ events is to bring together developers, designers, academics and arts and culture professionals in order to ‘change the dynamics of the arts-technology relationship’. The underlying argument resonates with the interests of the Digital Transformations Research Network:

Paying a digital agency to deliver your website is not a collaborative relationship – it’s a transactional one. Given that in most cases this is how a cultural organisation engages with digital talent, it doesn’t develop much capacity for innovation. Hack days remedy that, freeing us to have a creative conversation with digital talent to explore what might be possible rather than being fixated on what we think we want and need. It also exposes us to the creative processes of the digital sector. (Rohan Gunatillake, ‘The rise of the hack day and what it means for the arts’)

The increasing cultural significance of data requires particular attention. The explosion of infographics, for example, highlights a shift in not only how, but more crucially who is representing information and ideas. Of course, it is no longer just tapping away at keyboards that generates data. Increasingly, the talk of is of so-called ‘Big Data’, a cascade of self-producing algorithms and automated programs plugged into online networks, and sensitive to supply chains and markets.

One of the speakers at the Liverpool Hack for Culture event was Zarino Zappia, a product designer and coder at ScraperWiki. Combining the open source culture of wikis, with the growing interest and need of ‘scrapping’ data, or handling digital data sets, Zappia demonstrated how his free to use platform quickly combines and visualises data sets for new ends. The strapline for the platform is ‘ScraperWiki makes data do things’ – and clients include The Guardian, Informa, and the Cabinet Office. The demonstration I witnessed combined Tate Liverpool’s ticketing information with local government educational data sets. The results were not particularly surprising (more of the middle-classes are visiting the gallery etc.), but the speed of the calculation was a revelation. Within just a few hours social profiles can be mapped against cultural activity.

To take another example, a TED lecture given by technologists at Harvard and Google presents the idea of ‘Culturomics’. Drawing on the ‘data’ from billions of words from Google Books, they demonstrate the possibility of analysing culture as never before. The resulting Google Labs N-gram Viewer is another free to use tool supposedly putting the power of analysis into anyone’s hands:

The Google Labs N-gram Viewer is the first tool of its kind, capable of precisely and rapidly quantifying cultural trends based on massive quantities of data. It is a gateway to culturomics! The browser is designed to enable you to examine the frequency of words (‘banana’) or phrases (‘United States of America’) in books over time. You’ll be searching through over 5.2 million books: ~4% of all books ever published!

It is as if the once groundbreaking and painstaking sociological analysis of ‘cultural capital’ (cf. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, 1984) is now achievable on a laptop in an afternoon. The sites of critique and social/cultural analysis are seemingly shifting away from established organisations and critical voices to a more fluid, open source community of developers and designers. As a result, exciting opportunities open up, yet equally there remain unanswered (and arguably unconsidered) questions of ethics, methods, and cultural meaning and worth. If the arts-technology relationship is to break with a transactional model, arts and culture organisations, and their communities, must get in on the act. At the very least, this will mean possessing greater understanding of data handling and design to ensure a clearer sense of purpose.

The Culture Social Industry Reconsidered

Data provides all sorts of facts and figures about cultural engagement. However, it does not tell us how we feel, nor does it reveal anything of our hopes and aspirations. Advocates of new/social media would suggest we know how we feel and we make use of new technologies in creative and collaborative ways that benefit us. A more critical view would argue data is influencing behavior (and online design), even entrenching a bureaucracy of culture and leisure.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s well-known essay from the 1940s on the ‘culture industry’ is often used to portray an out of date ‘big, bad’ theory of media. Their phrase ‘mass deception’ sounds overblown, and does not match with much of what we know through ethnographic studies of audiences. Yet, their overarching concern about the interface of bureaucracy and technology retains currency:

‘The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen’ (Adorno and Horkeimer, ‘The Culture Industry’)

In the context of contemporary media, particularly social media, the idea of cultural representations being an extension, or indeed the duplication of the ‘world outside’ remains prescient. Of course, with user-generated content the distinction between producer and consumer dissolves, but arguably this can compound the culture industry critique. The idea of mass deception does not need to be premised upon vertical, hierarchical power. The deeper problem – which connects with psychoanalytic concerns – is the willingness of individuals to partake in systems such as the ‘mass customization’ of culture.

The formulation of the ‘culture industry’ sought to expose a fallacy that the declining authority of religion, along with technological and social differentiation had led to ‘cultural chaos’. To the contrary, Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument is that culture had come to impress the ‘same stamp on everything’. Such a claim continues to resonant when we think of the ‘time stamp’ of social media status updates and blog posts, as well as the ubiquitous, uniform templates these online platforms provide. With the culture industry made to pass through the filter of the whole world (web), we might usefully extend the term of the ‘culture industry’, to suggest also a ‘social industry’ of mobile and networked media. Our willingness to participate in social networks is a fait accompli, but do we really know what we want to say, or even what else we want to say via such networks?

Ways of Participating

The Frankfurt School’s questioning of technology, mediation and democracy evokes strong arguments and counter-arguments. Walter Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Artwork in the Age of Technical Reproducibility’ (1936), is one of the most widely read texts, and perhaps precisely because it captures an oscillating view about mediation. Benjamin’s ideas explicitly inform John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, which marked a critical intervention in cultural analysis in the 1970s. Berger openly challenged the hierarchies of the art world and high/low culture; and did so using the medium of television. Berger upholds the critical, political concerns of the critical theorists, yet he connects these with a progressive view of cultural participation and dialogue.

A particularly eloquent scene from the first episode of Ways of Seeing shows Berger talking with a group of primary school children about a Caravaggio painting. Berger plays a minimal moderating role, letting the conversation flow; only occasionally summarising to help establish the essence of competing views. What is fascinating about the clip is that through conversation a range of subtle ideas are explored, not least the sexual and gendered ambivalences of the painting. Ways of Seeing played an important part in opening up a new discourse and politics of museums, galleries, heritage and curatorial practice. Part of the legacy today is that we have naturally looked to digital resources as further means to enable visitor participation and outreach. Yet, what is it about the scene of Berger talking with the children that seems to defy digital translation? Or put another way, do comments following a blog post or on a Facebook page garner the same level of participation and subtlety? Ethnographic work as mentioned above would seem to suggest quite strongly this is not the case.

Caravaggio’s painting, The Supper at Emmaus (1601), presents a set of subtle gestures that would be hard to emulate through online conversation. And it is an emotional, empathetic engagement that allows the school children (with Berger) to open up such a fruitful dialogue. If we are to harness the digital realm for communities of engagement, people need to feel part of a conversation before even participating. The idea echoes how the National Gallery describe Caravaggio’s painting itself: ‘[t]he intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. The viewer too is made to feel a participant in the event.’

Dialogical Designs

In his book Together (2012), Richard Sennett argues the problem of online exchange relates to a dialectical and not dialogical approach to conversation (with the latter more suitably describing the scene from Ways of Seeing). In dialectic exchange, Sennett notes, ‘the verbal play of opposites should gradually build up to a synthesis’. When we are online, whether contributing or reading comments to a blog post, news article or Facebook page, we imagine the ‘conversation’ is heading somewhere, that it is building to a satisfying synthesis. Of course more often than not, the conversation reaches no such conclusion. We might say our conversations are more dialogic in nature; whereby, as Sennett describes, discussion ‘does not resolve itself by finding common ground’; and while ‘no shared agreements may be reached, through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another’. This may happen in some cases, but Sennett argues online communication is ‘designed’ to inhibit the dialogical.

Sennett provides an example of using GoogleWave, a now discontinued online service from Google ‘designed specifically for serious online cooperation’. In using this tool, as part of a group looking at policy initiatives in relation to migration to London, Sennett collaborated online with a number of statisticians, ethnographers and sociologists. It was necessary, he felt, to break with online habits, ‘which exemplify the fetish of assertion’; instead, he suggests, ‘only a dialogical, exploratory conversation could help … gain insight into the complex issues’. Despite high hopes for the technology, Sennett actually found the program to work against such exchange:

The program’s engineers had a definite idea about what cooperation entails; theirs was the dialectical model of conversation, one conducted in visual form. […] The program preserves what has come up before in a discussion, and makes the past immediately accessible with a click of the mouse; the visual set-up at a given moment, though, side-windows or suppresses what have come to seem irrelevancies and dead ends.

‘The instructions given to us for using GoogleWave claimed this set-up was an efficient way to cooperate, since irrelevancies fall to the wayside, but the program proved too simple. Its dialectical, linear structure failed to account for the complexities’ – Sennett, Together.

To consider just one simple, if fundamental aspect of online design, nearly all platforms require us to scroll down the page – which by default engenders the linear structure referred to by Sennett. Typically, emails, information posts, comments and tweets all accumulate down the page, the most recent either at the top or bottom of a long list. The result is the appearance of a single, unfolding dialogue. Of course, if we look closer at the individual messages we find a wide range of possibilities, but nonetheless, the design and conversational flow does little to capture how we talk and think together (as, for example, we witness in the scene from Ways of Seeing). In fact, the dialectical, linear structures or templates characteristic of Web 2.0 platforms, whilst undeniably enablers of social exchange on some level, are equally evocative of the bureaucratic ‘stamp’ on things noted of the culture industry.

There are examples of how design can be made more intuitive and subtle. Touch-screens are one clear example of how both technology and interface design can dramatically alter the nature and experience of our interaction with information. Apple’s dominant market position can in part be attributed to design enhancements. The company has not reinvented computing and mobile technology (indeed they are frequently in the courts regarding patent disputes!), but they excel in making an interface appear more tangible and intuitive. So, for example, the way in which iPhone (and other mobile phone) touch-screens appear to slide from one screen to the next is a matter of coding (and aesthetic design), it is not an intrinsic quality of the hardware technology. Of course these are only cosmetic matters (and in the case of Apple says nothing of the problems associated with proprietary formats and a globalised labour-force). Getting beyond dialectic models of conversation and exchange potentially requires a potentially fundamental and integrated rethink of design.

Making Things More Difficult…

Reflecting on the AHRC Digital Transformations project, David Gauntlett considers three, interconnecting spheres of transformation to which we need to pay attention. These are: (1) Transformations in cultural life and cultural artefacts; (2) transformations in theories, approaches and tools; and (3) transformations in communication, engagement and participation. In thinking. In the 1970s, John Berger’s work can be understood as part of a wave of critical transformations, which echo these three, interconnected transformations. Berger’s account of new forms of reproducibility examined only analogue, mass media forms. Nonetheless, his political, social and cultural concerns map onto present interest in digital media. For Berger, at the time of presenting Ways of Seeing, there were significant transformations taking place in mediated cultural life, which in turn connected with new theoretical ideas and approaches; as well the shifting agenda regarding audiences and participation.

The scene from Ways of Seeing (discussed above) captures the ‘art’ of dialogical exchange. It yields a beautiful discussion about ambiguity, which is not premised upon prior, official knowledge, but simply keen, sensitive engagement. In going online, one of the critical questioning facing arts and cultural organizations is how to facilitate such an exchange, in which the flow of conversation is not linear, nor necessarily is it easy. ‘In dialogics,’ notes Sennett, ‘people do not neatly fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle;’ which is precisely why ‘they can get both knowledge and pleasure from their exchanges’.

Richard Sennett’s Together is at root an account of an apparent ‘de-skilling’ in the social realm. His concern is that we are ‘losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work’. We hear a lot of rhetoric about community and cooperation, not least in respect of social media. Yet, if we accept the account of online communication as inherently dialectical, we encounter two potential problems. Firstly, exchanges can seemingly be forced to add up to some kind meaning that they do not necessarily possess; and/or secondly, given an overabundance of information we tend to cherry-pick, aligning ourselves with what makes sense to us and not others. In other words, we ‘collude’ with communities of like minds. The ‘good’ alternative, Sennett suggests, ‘is a demanding and difficult kind of cooperation; it tries to join people who have separate or conflicting interests, who do not feel good about each other, who are unequal, or who simply do not understand one another. The challenge is to respond to others on their own terms’.

Sennett’s account of cooperative communication brings to the fore the importance of sympathy and empathy. Both, he argues ‘convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but the one is an embrace, the other an encounter. Sympathy overcomes differences through imaginative acts of identification; empathy attends to another person on his or her own terms’. The scene from Ways of Seeing, in which children discuss a painting, is all about empathy. Through dialogue the children not only hear the views of each other, but they face up to the potential of conflicting views. They also attend to the person in the painting. They truly encounter the art. In this manner, the kind of dialogue we might hope for online needs to be more than just eliciting a response, and more than seeking consensus. It needs to bring about encounters, or as Sennett would suggest, to be ‘an earned experience rather than just thoughtless sharing’.

© Paul Foreman

In terms of aesthetic design, an obvious problem with online social templates is that all our thoughts and ideas end up looking exactly the same – constrained as they are by set colour schemes, fonts and character lengths etc. Sennett writes: ‘The desire to neutralize difference, to domesticate it, arises … from an anxiety about difference’. While he is writing about underlying problems of engagement, it is also fruitful to consider the argument purely in terms of design. What if, for example, we used the online environment differently? With an increasing number of galleries and museums installing touchscreen displays, is there a way to use the dimensions of the screen differently to foster greater complexity in our conversations? As one tentative suggestion, we could consider online comments and dialogue accruing upon a single screen in the form of a mind-map, rather than in a long, bureaucratic list. Thoughts and suggestions, which might seem to go in quite disparate directions could collect upon the one screen in thought bubbles of different dimensions. We could then make choices to move into further levels of conversation.

Such a design hardly solves the deeper dilemmas of dialogic and empathetic exchange, but it is suggestive of what might transpire in rethinking the container of what we wish to say and be able to say, together – even if, or indeed especially if that togetherness is about difference as much as similarities. However, the point here is not to present abstract ideas for alternative ‘templates’, but to place emphasis on the idea that we all need to get involved in thinking about dialogic environments and design elements, and that these environments should not be bolted on, but built into the transformations of the very objects, ideas and participation we desire…

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