Mediated Communication

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

By Steven H. VanderLeest

At a recent conference, I heard a number of educators speak on their concerns about the detrimental effects of distance learning and online education.  Their mantra was that there is something special about the natural teacher-student relationship that requires intimate, in-person, face-to-face communication.  There is some kind of indefinable electricity that permeates the classroom of the master teacher.  Each of these teachers extended their diatribe against technology by resurrecting the critiques of philosophers Jacque Ellul and Neil Postman.  Ellulís 1964 seminal book, The Technological Society, makes the argument that modern society has an inescapable focus on efficiency, to which all other aspects of society must eventually yield.  Ellul offers little hope for the people that must become cogs in the machine in the face of the irresistible force of technology.  Postman echos Ellul in his 1992 Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, documenting the unseen hand of technology that drives society to meet its needs.  Postman is not quite so dark as Ellul, offering at least some suggestions for resistance to and subversion of technologyís designs on us. 

Postmodern deconstructionists argue that we really can never understand each other because our words are so individualized and contextualized that we each construct our own meaning which has little or nothing to do with the speakerís intent.  So I have often wondered why they bother to tell us this, since their central argument is that we wonít understand them.  The anti-technology crowd claims we must avoid technology if we hope to save our cultural souls.  So I have often wondered why they use technology to write and disseminate their arguments.  When I heard Postman speak at Calvin just a few years before he published Technopoly, I noticed that he traveled to this speaking engagement in a commercial jet aircraft, traveled from the airport to the college in an automobile, amplified his voice with a microphone so that the large audience could hear him,, and wore clothing made from heavily engineered textiles.  Similarly, the educators at my conference were against technology, yet they admitted to using all kinds of technology, such as chalk and chalkboard to write words for their students, electric lights so the students could see them, heat and cooling technology to produce a temperate indoor environment, Google searching for their papers, and more.  The anti-technologist argument is seriously undermined if the preacher does not practice what he preaches, but instead continues to enjoy the benefits. 

The educatorís fear of technology is not new.  Educators of the previous century worried that with the advent of film and television, student learning would suffer and, more personally, worried that they would be replaced by the new technology.  Even the ancient philosopher Plato worried that the new technology of books would ruin our memory.  Yet our society has not succumbed to a heedless obedience to technology.  Philosophers such as Ellul as well as Martin Heidegger claim that technology is autonomous, with its own goals and with the power and agency to induce changes in society.  Yet our society has not become the mindless marionette that dances to the gestures of technology. 

When we see evil in the world, it is easy to blame technology. But technology has no agency, it is not an actor.  It is our instrument to do our bidding.  Christians can point to a simpler explanation for the evil in the world:  sin.  The effects of sin are far-reaching:  not only does sin warp the intent of the technology user so that the instrument is directed to corrupt ends, but it also warps the technology itself, so that the instrument is biased towards the will of its maker in ways that encourage corrupt uses.  Blaming technology itself is to blame the symptom rather than the disease.  Recommending treatments based on this misdiagnosis will thus not cure the root cause of our ills.  I am not thereby exonerating technology.  We must still be wary of injustice, wrong, and harm that arrive via technology.  However, any corrective action must look beyond the technology itself to the human systems and processes that produced that technology. 

Thus I call for educators worried about online classes to name those fears and then do the hard work of analyzing the system, rather than settling for the easy critique of the technology by itself.  If we claim that online learning is evil (or less drastically, less effective), then let us carefully examine what is lost when the teacher and student are separated geographically and sometimes temporally, yet connected via a digital medium.  One problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that we lose some information important for interpreting meaning.  For example,  you can tell someone is joking in person by the twinkle in their eye or the slight smile on their face.  It is much more difficult to recognize humor in an email that is devoid of all body language.  One could think of non-technical solutions to this problem (use a smiley face to denote a joke in text, or avoid humor) and technical solutions (use a high definition video feed so that we can see that twinkle).  A second problem that we see when our communication is mediated is that separation permits less engagement by the participants.  If I am speaking face-to-face with someone, it is much more difficult for them to ignore me.  My physical presence demands their engagement and holds them accountable.  Again, one can think of non-technical solutions (such as frequent prompting that requires response to ensure engagement) and technical solutions (such as attention-tracking video recognition technology to flag when a participantís engagement is dropping). 

We can learn something more from this analysis, beyond appropriate use of technology.  We can also see that rich communication requires rich personal relationship.  A teacher that mentors a student one-on-one will be in a better position to encourage learning, challenge assumptions, and hold the student accountable.  Compare that to a teacher who stands before a class of 100 students and thus faces significant communication hurdles that approach those of online communication, since one cannot easily see the students in the back row to determine if they are engaged.  A long-running conversation with a good friend (whether in person or over facebook) will contain keen insights and allow for more personal exchanges that deepen the friendship.  Compare that to a tweet to thousands of twitter followers, which can only contain generic insights and impersonal information.  Compare that to this blog itself, which is primarily one-way communication (with a few much appreciated exceptions when some readers email me back with their thoughts). 

We can learn something further here.  All our communication is mediated.  Our own preconceptions and moods will color our interpretation of any message from others.  The deconstructionist thus have it partly right—we do make our own meaning, though I donít take this to the extreme that there is no shared understanding.  So in all our communication, even when meant in love, we must take care.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together), discusses the importance of Christ as our ultimate mediator, not only between ourselves and God, but also between ourselves and our fellow humans:  ďBecause Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them.  As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself.  This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love.  The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became man, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christís; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christís eyes.  This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ.  Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become.  It takes the life of the other person into its own hands.  Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.Ē (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tr. John W. Doberstein, Life Together, Harper Collins, 1954, p. 36).

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(c) 2013, Steven H. VanderLeest