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Pondering the relevance of Cooley´s theory of communication to theorizing web-based visualizations

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On May 3rd CSISP hosted a reading group to discuss the relevance of the early 20th century American pragmatist Charles Horton Cooley for theorizing online forms of social inquiry. Like that of other early 20th century thinkers, Cooley’s work offers some promising concepts for exploring the current digital networked context,  such as the notion of the economy of attention. Some contemporary devices of inquiry served as the empirical references in the discussion, namely tools that harness and visualize digital traces left on the web. The last years have seen a rise in the use of such online devices for doing social inquiry within the social sciences (see for instance www.macospol.eu) and in different forms of organizations (see for instance the UN’s www.unglobalpulse.org). The reading group took this development as its point of departure in order to discuss the extent to which Cooley´s idea of ´environments of experience´ and his concept of ´communicative selection mechanisms´ can be used to build a theoretical framework around the concept of ´web-visions´ that can guide the analysis of such devices.

The discussion started by trying to root the concept of ´web-visions´ in the work of Cooley, who argued that the  communication technologies of the late 19th century altered the ´environments of experience´ of people at his time by providing new ´selection-mechanisms´ through which social influence could pass. The telegraph is an example of such a mechanism because it allowed for new experiences of, for instance, prices on wheat. Cooley distanced himself from the social Darwinists of the time by highlighting that it was communicative selection, rather than natural selection, that established the situations within which valuation and social organization could occur. After having centered on these concepts the question posed in the reading group was whether they could provide a fruitful ground for conceptualizing visualizations based on digital traces as ´web-visions´ that demarcate the experience of their users in specific ways depending on a distributed set of selection mechanisms.

The UN Global Pulse Project

The group discussed this by using the search engine results page (SERP) as a simple example of an online device that harnesses digital traces in order to produce a spatial ordering of information (in the form of ordinally ranked web-pages). Such a device could be conceptualized as a ´web-vision´ that creates ´environments of experience´ that produce situations within which objects (in the form of web pages) can obtain a value (in the form of relevance). Cooley´s writings on the telegraph suggest, we thought, that if we conceptualize the SERP as such an environment we need to see the selection-mechanisms as being distributed and in constant motion. A characteristic of Cooley´s writings that we focused on here was that the location of the selection mechanism is much more vague when he writes about technologies such as the telegraph than when he writes about primary groups such as the family or the Church, which he saw as selection mechanisms that were important for local organization. Cooley sometimes speaks as if the individual chooses his own environment and at other times as if the technology is where the selection is located.

Google Query Return Page: 2008 President of America

This could be characterized, we thought, as “the limbo of Cooley” and a productive interpretation of this limbo could be that the idea of an ´environment of experience´ is needed in his writings precisely because the selection mechanisms underneath it are distributed, changing and therefore hard to locate. If this applies to a device like the telegraph it would also apply quite well to a device such as Google´s SERP or more complex visualizations that function as sites where selection-mechanisms are rendered explicit.  One thing to be gained by grounding the concept of ´web-visions´ in the “limbo” of Cooley, we discussed, would be a caution towards reducing selection to algorithmic processing as well as a sensitivity towards the distributed and constantly re-negotiated chain of mechanisms that go into demarcating such a vision. In relation to the SERP of Google, such chains would, for instance, include the semantics of the person searching for information and the history of web-infrastructures and HTML code and the interfaces and situations within which people leave their traces.

A pertinent question was whether the concept of a ´web-vision´ would lead to different analyses than existing theoretical frameworks that conceptualize visualizations based on digital traces. On the basis of the writings of John Dewey and Walter Lippmann it has, for instance, such traces have been interpreted them as depictions of issue-networks and the sociology of Gabriel Tarde has been taken up to  define them as monads or as new value-meters. It was suggested that one difference in relation to these concepts is that the concept of a ´web-vision´ brings back the importance of demarcation by illustrating how different forms of demarcations are empirically introduced by online devices of different sorts. By highlighting the relevance of re-visiting demarcations the concept of ´web-visions´ would lead to different analyses than analyses coming from,  for instance, Tarde. Focusing on the distributed character of these demarcations could serve to produce different analyses of Google´s SERP than the ones that have been carried out under the heading of, for instance, ´filter-bubbles´ and ´web-spheres´. Web-visions would be different than filter bubbles because they have a broader focus than the algorithm and they would be different from web-spheres because they do not start by assuming the existence of a specific type of sphere that can be more or less representatively uncovered and visualized.

By Anders Koed Madsen
Copenhagen Business School/CSISP Visiting Fellow

Readings:

Carey, J. (1989), Space, time and communications – A tribute to Harold Innis, In J.Carey, Communication as Culture (pp. 109-133), revised edition, Routledge.

Cooley, C.H. (1897), The process of social change, In J. D. Peters, & P. Simonson, Mass Communication and American Social Thought Key Texts 1919-1968 (pp. 21-25). Rowman & Littlefield.

Cooley, C.H. (1912), Valuation as a social process, The Psychological Bulletin, Vol. ix. No 12

Madsen, Anders Koed (May 2012), Web-visions as controversy lenses, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 37(1), Maney Publishing.

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