Re–approaching nearness
First Monday

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Abstract
An interesting transposition has happened. It used to be that the farther things were, the more difficult it was to know them. Today, thanks to communication technologies, we often develop relationships with what is far at the expense of what is immediately around us. This paper explores the increased irrelevancy that the near acquires through our use of online technologies. But by proposing a model of praxis that incorporates our actions online as well as offline, this paper also argues that online technologies can play an important part in bringing the epistemologically far near to us, and making the physically near relevant again.

Contents

Introduction: Overcoming irrelevancy
Sustainable uses of technology
Epistemological distance
Relevancy and communication
Praxis
Conclusions: Towards a pedagogy of nearness

 


 

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Introduction: Overcoming irrelevancy

"Already, we are half of the time in New York, just our bodies are left behind ... I worry that nowadays anything near us seems unimportant, while anything we can’t see becomes larger than life."
Harish Kumar, an employee of an outsourcing company working in Chennai, India [1].

Harish Kumar’s comment, quoted above, is testament to the fact that in an increasingly wired world, we spend large portions of our time virtually connected to spaces and time zones other than those which we physically occupy. Our bodies might not be able to leave their physical surroundings, but online technologies have allowed our minds to be transported to virtual environments where the constraints of miles and hours do not apply. For some, this condition is not completely voluntary: in a globalized economy, more and more people like Mr. Kumar are being paid to sit in front of a computer and experience an enforced Cartesian dualism (to put it in capitalist terms, people’s minds are employed in the generation of revenue without having to pay for the dislocation of their bodies). But whatever the motivation might be, one undeniable consequence is that this disembodiment cannot but result in a depreciation of one’s surroundings, or a neglect of the near. This condition, I have started to observe, is conducive to a peculiar kind of anxiety or concern.

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It has taken me a while to be able to name the source of this concern, even though it is something I experience almost everyday. The normal flow of my work and personal life lead me to explore hundreds of online documents and interact with dozens of people online. I surf, e–mail, blog, IM and google my way through a good portion of the day. Thus, I thought at first that the concern I was having was related to information overload. However, online searching, filtering, anti–spamming, and syndication tools have made it relatively easy — although not always enjoyable — to process voluminous quantities of data. I realized then that my concern was related not to the amount of information I had to process everyday, but to my ability to turn that information into something I could apply in interacting with my immediate environment. With some worry, I started to notice an increased lack of relevancy that my immediate surroundings were acquiring, a lack of relevancy that seemed to be in direct proportion to the time I spent online. In other words, my apprehension seemed to be motivated by a desire to want to make online experiences relevant not just to my life in some abstract, virtual sense, but to my life as an individual embedded in specific social settings. I wanted to determine whether my online experiences could be assessed in terms of the positive or negative impact they were having on my life as a member of various communities, extending concentrically from the local to the global to the universal, and what methods could be used for such assessment.

At the same time, I wondered how damaging this disembodiment was if, through my online experiences, I felt an increased connection with the world beyond me. It's almost as if counteracting the irrelevancy of my immediate surroundings was a new sense of relevancy attached to the virtual spaces I was discovering online. However, this almost categorical replacement of the near with the far did not seem altogether right. In previous work (Mejias, 1999), I had tried to establish that uses of technology that increase our understanding of the world, not distort it, can be considered sustainable in a normative sense. Understanding one part of the world at the expense of severing the connections with another did not seem to fall in this category.

I understood that my apprehension would only be relieved to the extent I could conceptualize a model for integrating online experiences into larger systems of action that included online as well as off–line acts, and whose ultimate end was defined as making the near and the far equally and increasingly relevant to my life. This paper is an attempt at conceptualizing such a model. Although I have encountered other analyses of the problematic of technology and the near (cf. Huyke, 2003), I have not seen many concrete prescriptions to tackle this problem, much less prescriptions that incorporate technology into the solution. I suppose it is believed (with good reason) that technology cannot be used for solving problems caused by technology. While I am not so naïve as to believe that technology by itself can drive consciousness and growth, I am interested in exploring the ways in which it can contribute to new forms of action that can.

 

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Sustainable uses of technology

It is surprising how central online experiences have become to our lives, and yet how poorly we are able to ascribe meaning to them in the context of our development as human beings. We tend to either neglect their significance, dismissing them as inconsequential acts conducted in an alternate reality, or endow them with exaggerated importance, investing them with equal or sometimes even greater significance (emotional, political, etc.) than non–virtual acts. There is no normative model of argumentation to discuss the consequences of online experiences; we have an ever–expanding technical vocabulary for describing what we do online, but we lack the language to critically assess the impact, both positive and negative, that online experiences have on our lives as a whole.

One barrier to developing this model is our deterministic thinking about technology: believing that technology by itself has the power to enrich or corrupt our lives. To say that technologies do one thing or another is to make statements about particular ways of using technology, not about the technologies themselves. Although technologies do in part determine how they are to be used, they also leave open opportunities for human agency and appropriation that can result in different ways of using them (I sometimes refer to these as the "open affordances" of technology). Clinging to a deterministic view of technology prevents us from exploring such possibilities, and leads us to a quick and facile assessment of the impact of technology on our lives.

The other roadblock to developing a full understanding of the consequences of our online actions is the view of virtuality as an alternate reality, not part of the same reality we inhabit. We forget that while the mind is free to roam around in cyberspace, it is still attached to the body, so online experiences are as much part of our physical and moral reality as everything else. Instead, we believe that actions can begin, unfold and conclude entirely online, and that virtuality has its own set of ethics and value systems that do not correspond to the rest of reality. Turkle (1995), for example, describes cases of people who believe that marital infidelity or sexual harassment are permissible online because they do not "mean" the same, or have the same significance they have off–line. A holistic view of our lives requires that we see our actions online and off–line as part of one and the same reality. Refusal to apply to virtuality the same normative questions that apply to the rest of reality is a major impediment to being able to assess the impact of online experiences in our lives.

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The disembodiment and irrelevancy that the near is acquiring is due to a belief that technologies, not us, dictate how we interact with the world (technological determinism), and that the consequences of our online acts are not important because what happens online stays online (virtuality as alternate reality). Therefore, the challenges are to assume responsibility for how we use and apply technologies, find ways to contextualize online experiences as part of the same (not a separate) reality, and develop a normative model to assess the appropriateness of our actions as they extend across both the online and physical realms. Meeting these challenges successfully would result in more sustainable uses of technology (I'm using the word in a normative, not functional, sense; cf. Mejias, 1999): applications of technology that aid in what Bhola (1992) calls the ontological reintegration of the individual to the world.

Unfortunately, most applications of technology today prevent that ontological reintegration to the world by increasing the irrelevancy of the near. There is not a more senseless technologically–induced illusion than to believe that we can set out to change a distant place while making no attempt to change our immediate surroundings, and ourselves. A complete rejection of technology, however, would be the equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Technology can in fact play an important part in our reintegration with the world. I will argue that we can use the relevancy of the far we have established through online experiences to re–engage the near, making it relevant in new ways. Ultimately, I will also argue, technology can help us transcend the dichotomy of near and far by helping us coordinate actions across both planes.

 

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Epistemological distance

Modern communication technologies have supposedly brought about the death of distance. While this might be true when it comes to geographic distance, this apparent success has not been replicated when it comes to epistemological distance. By epistemological distance I mean to suggest that some objects are more "knowable" to us than others: objects that are epistemologically near are things that we have been conditioned to know and understand well, while objects that are epistemologically far are things that we have been conditioned to view as unknowable, foreign, or irrelevant. Things that are epistemologically far can be referred to as a generalized Other.

Modern communication technologies have performed an interesting transposition in terms of how easy it is for us to know things. It used to be that the farther away from us things were physically, the farther away they would be epistemologically. Now, things can be quite epistemologically far from us even when they are physically right next to us. People can be conditioned to ignore those Others or render them irrelevant. Similarly, things that are physically far can be epistemologically near, and appear relevant. In other words, another way of explaining the irrelevancy of the near is to say that the death of distance has in fact placed a greater distance between individuals and their immediate surroundings [2].

Why does the near matter? Is relevancy of the far something bad for us? As I hope my argument has started to suggest, relevancy of the near and the far are equally important, but a technologically–facilitated relevancy of the far at the expense of increased alienation from our immediate surroundings engenders a distorted view of the world and our place in it. The question of why individuals should strive for increased relevancy of the far and the near is not without importance to the struggle against oppression. A world in which the relevancy of things, both near and far, is mediated by profit–driven interests is a world in which great control can be exercised over people, and great harm committed with their implicit support. That world is not, unfortunately, unimaginable in our day.

 

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Relevancy and communication

The way we make things epistemologically near or far, or more or less relevant, is through communication. This point can be illustrated by explaining the difference between communication with and communication about. Communication with means that we make the Other relevant to us by engaging it in discourse (i.e., communication is dialogic). The Other might be physically near or far, but the fact that we communicate directly with it means that we make it epistemologically near. Communication about, on the other hand, means that we make the Other less relevant, or epistemologically far, by failing to recognize it as an entity that can be engaged dialogically (i.e., communication is monologic). This distinction is somewhat aligned with what Habermas (2001) calls communication oriented towards success (strategic action) vs. communication oriented towards understanding (communicative action):

Whereas in strategic action one actor seeks to influence the behavior of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification in order to cause the interaction to continue as the first actor desires, in communicative action one actor seeks rationally to motivate another by relying on the illocutionary binding/bonding effect (Bindungseffekt) of the offer contained in his speech act [3].

Communication oriented towards success is communication about the Other: we are merely including the Other in our discourse as an object to be acted upon. Communication oriented towards understanding involves communication with the Other in order to share meaning and coordinate action with it (which will, in turn, remove the veil of Otherness from it and from us).

This model can also be considered an attempt to update some of the concepts that Ong (1982) developed in his theory of orality and literacy. To him, orality was an experience involving a physically–present audience that was conducive to subjectivity by decreasing the distance between the knower and the known. Literacy, on the other hand, was an experience not involving a physically–present audience that was conducive to objectivity by increasing the distance between the knower and the known. One consequence of this model was that literacy, through its objectification of the world (separation of knower and known), resulted in more sophisticated orders of reasoning.

In the model I am proposing, communication with shares the characteristics of orality insofar as the knower and the known are brought closer together, except that in this model physical immanence is not required (thanks to the application of technology). Communication about, like literacy, can engender higher orders of thinking through objectification, but this model introduces an unsustainability (from a normative perspective) that Ong’s notion of literacy did not reflect. This unsustainability arises when communication about is favored over communication with, which increases the irrelevancy of the near. Thus, communication about and communication with are part of a symbiotic system in a way that was not explicitly described in the relationship between orality and literacy. From a normative perspective, this allows us to critique the tendency to engage in a kind of communication that involves the other as object, and which does not seek to evolve into communication between subjects.

As a way to explain these differences further in the context of physical and epistemological distance, as well as in the context of the application of technology, consider the following scale:

less relevancy (far)
  1. communication about, online
  2. communication about, face–to–face
  3. communication with, online
  4. communication with, face-to-face
more relevancy (near)

The movement from epistemological farness to nearness is expressed in a unidirectional shift from communication about to communication with. In other words, communication with will always result in increased relevance as compared to communication about.

But how online and off–line presence, mediated through technology, plays into this relationship is not so obvious. Face–to–face communication, by virtue of physical immanence, has the potential to make things more relevant. However, face–to–face communication does not guarantee communication with the Other, so the distinction between with and about continues to be the main differentiating factor in these types of communication. Thus, communication with, online (#3 on the scale) represents greater epistemological relevancy than communication about, face–to–face (#2 on the scale). For instance, talking with the Other online reduces irrelevancy to a greater degree than giving a lecture about the Other in front of a live audience. Therein lies the possibility for using technology to increase relevancy, a possibility that is further explored below.

 

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Praxis

In a normative sense, then, to move from communicating about the Other to communicating with the Other is to move towards increased relevancy. This movement constitutes a praxis, or a prescription for action. In our present–day context, praxis means bringing epistemologically near 1) that which is epistemologically far (that which remains foreign to us, and towards which we are prejudiced against) and 2) that which is physically near but which has been rendered irrelevant. In both cases, moving from communicating about to communicating with can bring the epistemologically far and the physically near closer to us.

An important point to realize is that communication with is always preceded by communication about. In other words, it is crucial to understand that this move from about to with, this praxis, is anti–teleological (i.e., it does not seek a pre–established end). Communication with is not an end that can be reached with any finality. Instead, praxis is an ongoing process in which turns in life are constantly requiring that we communicate about new Others, and eventually move to communicating with them, only to find out that this has created more Others to communicate about. Praxis is anti–teleological in that what matters is not the end, but the ongoing process; not the conclusions, but the procedures for arriving at those conclusions.

A good way to illustrate this is to use Freire’s (1971) definition of praxis as the combination of reflection and action. Reflection involves communication about, in that it is monologic reasoning. Action involves communication with, in that it is dialogic reasoning. As Freire pointed out, reflection without action is verbalism (communication about that never evolves into communication with), and action without reflection is activism (communication with that is not preceded by reflection). One type of communication leads to the other, and the process generates further iterations.

How do online experiences fit into this process? For one thing, online communication provides a fertile ground for negotiating the shift from communication about to communication with, as I shall describe soon. Additionally, online communication can occupy an intermediary step between reflection and action. While online experiences can make the near irrelevant, they can also make the far more relevant. By inserting online experiences between the processes of reflection and action, we not only expand the model of praxis to fit our times, but put online communication in a place where its strengths and weaknesses can be balanced. As a way to demonstrate this, I will now expand Freire’s model by adding an element that encompasses online experiences: interaction. The new model of praxis can thus be expressed in the following way:

Praxis = Reflection + Interaction + Action
Or, expressed as a diagram in the Figure below:
A schematic view of praxis
A schematic view of praxis

Let’s explore each component.

  • Reflection: Praxis begins with reflection. The subject recognizes an Other, something that is epistemologically far. That Other might be physically far, or it might be right next to the subject. But if the subject does not recognize the Other, praxis cannot unfold. In order to try to make sense of the Other, the subject engages in reasoning, which at this point takes the form of internal monologic communication about the Other. However, if the opportunity exists, the subject will eventually seek to engage socially in the process of knowing, as a way to validate his or her own assumptions.
  • Interaction: In seeking to engage in collective reasoning, or dialogue, the subject enters the stage of interaction (A). Thanks to modern communication technologies, this interaction can now happen face–to–face or online (with various degrees of success, which is not my goal to examine here). But interaction itself is not a static end. Whether it happens online or face–to–face, interaction provides the first opportunity to move from communication about to communication with the Other. If it remains at the level of communication about, the subject will go back and forth between reflection and interaction (B). The subject’s own agenda and investment in personal development will determine how long this cycle between monologic and dialogic communication about the Other will continue, or even if it will be transcended at all. But ideally at some point the subject will make a move towards action, or communication with the Other (C).
  • Action: Communication with entails that the Other ceases to be an Other and becomes an equal actor. As Habermas (2001) explains, communicative action ensues when "actors are prepared to harmonize their plans of action through internal means, committing themselves to pursuing their goals only on the condition of an agreement — one that exists or one to be negotiated — about definitions of the situation and prospective outcomes" [4]. This kind of action is teleological in that it presupposes an outcome, but it is anti–teleological in that new Others will surface, and new iterations of praxis will surface (D).

As can be gathered from the above description, interaction occupies a space between reflection and action; it is not entirely one or the other. Interaction is not pure reflection because it transcends monologic reasoning, and interaction is not pure action because it has not accomplished the move towards communication with. Interaction by itself lacks the power to reintegrate the individual to the world, but it is a crucial part of the process.

Three points about the use of online communication in the fulfillment of praxis can be made here. First, interaction can be fulfilled through online communication by facilitating communication about the Other. However, as I have been arguing, this can also result in an increased irrelevancy of the near. Hence the need to inscribe this act in more complete systems of action. Second, action can also be fulfilled through online communication by facilitating communication with the Other. The same tools that allow us to communicate about the Other can also help us in communicating directly with it. And third, online communication can help engender praxis by facilitating the encounter with new Others. These encounters are produced not only through the exploration of the far, but also through a renewed assessment of the near that the exploration of the far generates. In other words, our interaction with Others at a distance can be re–invigorating in that this relationship can cause us to re–examine our assumptions about our immediate surroundings. This process can result in reflection which leads to discovering new Others in the near, and eventually to re-establishing communication with those Others.

Key to understanding how relevancy can be increased through praxis is to recognize the ways in which reflection, interaction, and action are interdependent in this process. Each partial or incomplete combination of these elements invalidates the integrity and meaningfulness of praxis. The Table below summarizes what happens when reflection, interaction, or action are subtracted from the original formula.

Incomplete forms of praxis
Incomplete forms of praxis

Verbalism and activism do not succeed in engendering praxis because the former fails to convert reflection into action, and the latter in informing action with reflection. Likewise, removing action and reflection from interaction results in an irrelevancy of the near, as virtual activism and virtual verbalism reflect a concern with the far to the exclusion of the near. But removing interaction from action and reflection has equally negative consequences, resulting in an irrelevancy of the far, as action and reflection unfold in isolation, reflecting a concern for the near to the exclusion of the far. This describes the delicate balance that reflection, interaction and action must achieve in order to encompass equal relevancy of the near and far in an ongoing movement from communication about to communication with. This delicate balance is obviously difficult to achieve, but not impossible.

 

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Conclusions: Towards a pedagogy of nearness

What I have hoped to achieve in this paper is to lay down the groundwork for a model of praxis that will inform a pedagogy that validates nearness. The goal of a pedagogy of nearness should not be to vanquish irrelevancy. Irrelevancy is a necessary part of life, and it's what motivates people to learn in the first place. The goal of a pedagogy of nearness is, instead, to form human beings who are continuously invested in decreasing irrelevancy, and who recognize in this praxis the very essence of the human project: to seek to know the truth is to act in accordance with the truth. Or as Marcuse said: "Epistemology is in itself ethics, and ethics is epistemology" [5].

A pedagogy of nearness can help us ask: How does this reflection, interaction or action fit into a larger praxis? Is this reflection, interaction or action contributing towards epistemological nearness or farness? Is it increasing or decreasing the relevancy of what is physically near, or what is physically far? How is this reflection, interaction or action contributing to the reintegration of my self or of Others to the world?

At the same time, a pedagogy of nearness can help us situate online experiences as part of this process. In other words, it should make evident the ways in which online experiences, by themselves, are not enough for a meaningful interaction with the world. I believe that by designing learning systems that take a holistic praxis into account, technology can spark a desire for nearness. This in spite of the fact that most current systems, by their mere failure to ask questions such as the ones above, are oriented towards using technology to decrease the importance of the near. In the end, no technology can take the place of a system of values that promotes empathy and the willingness to seek understanding. But it is possible to design learning systems that enjoin relevancy by using the far to help us re–evaluate the near. These systems, by the way, do not have to revolve around the application of the newest and fanciest technologies. A lot can be done with what is already out there [6].

As I hope it is evident by now, the argument presented here is not meant to rationalize our online experiences so that we can feel good about the time we spend online. It is meant to challenge us to seek meaning in those experiences by forcing us to look for connections between them and what we do (or not do) in the rest of our interactions with the world. I believe we will be on our way to a more sustainable relationship with the world when we learn to inscribe our online experiences into larger systems of action meant to bring the epistemologically far near to us, and make the physically near relevant again. For that to happen, I would argue that more than new technologies, we need new pedagogical models such as the one I have begun to describe here. End of article

 

About the author

Ulises A. Mejias is a doctoral student in the Communication, Computing and Technology in Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Most recently, he was Director of Learning Systems Design at eCornell. For more current writings on this topic, as well as contact information, visit his blog at http://ideant.typepad.com.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the following people for their comments on various drafts of this paper throughout the past year: Everyone in MSTU5006: Colloquium on Communication and Education (Teachers College, Columbia University, Fall 2003–Spring 2004), including professors Robbie McClintock and Frank Moretti, as well as (and specially to) Madhavi Menon and Asma Barlas. During the writing of the final draft of this paper, some ideas came from reading Lisa Galarneau’s blog Relevancy (http://www.oddwater.com/relevancy/index.php).

 

Notes

1. Boo, 2004, pp. 65, 66.

2. Irrelevancy of the near is not a new phenomenon. In Western metaphysics, the telos, or end, is frequently associated with the far as a site of purity, immortality, rationality, and energy. Modern communication technologies, in particular the technologies of virtuality, simply fulfill such desires in new ways.

3. Habermas, 2001, p. 58, emphasis in original.

4. Habermas, 2001, p. 134.

5. Marcuse, 1991, p. 125.

6. For an example of such a system, see my review of the Cultura program; Mejias, 2004.

 

References

H.S. Bhola, 1992. "Literacy, knowledge, power, and development: Multiple connections," Springfield, Va.: DYNEDRS.

Katherine Boo, 2004. "The best job in town: The Americanization of Chennai," New Yorker (5 July), pp. 54–69.

J. Habermas, 2001. Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hector Jose Huyke, 2003. "Technologies and the devaluation of what is near," Techné,, volume 6, number 3 (Spring), pp. 57–70, and at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v6n3/pdf/Huyke(ce).pdf, accessed 19 August 2004.

P. Freire, 1971. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

H. Marcuse, 1991. One dimensional man: Studies in the ideology of advanced industrial society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ulises Mejias, 2004, "Alterity and technology: Interview with Profs. Furstenberg and Levet of MIT’s Cultura project," at http://ideant.typepad.com/ideant/2004/06/alterity_and_te.html, accessed 23 August 2004.

Ulises Mejias, 1999. "Sustainable communicational realities in the age of virtuality," Critical Studies in Media Communication, volume 18, number 2, pp. 211–228. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07393180128075

W.J. Ong, 1982. Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Routledge.

S. Turkle, 1995. Life on the screen. New York: Touchstone Books.


Editorial history

Paper received 24 August 2004; accepted 18 February 2005.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Re–approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis by Ulises A. MejÌas
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 3 - 7 March 2005
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1213/1133





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