Interaction and Agency

The fragmentation of activities that we describe above, and that Bolter says encourages users to “proceduralize their behaviour” (2012, p. 45), influences the tasks and actions of agents. More significantly, it blurs the limits between the agent's actions and the system's actions, in such a way that it becomes impossible for agents to distinguish between their intentions and the system's. In their interplay with the digital environments, therefore, systems' requests for attention are more than a simple appeal for the users' consciousness; they constitute an urgent request for participating in the action. However, this has been the case since the introduction of partially automated systems. What is new, and may have an even more distinctive effect on the definition of self, is the fragmentation of information and activities among networks of people through the digital systems. The collaborative online activities that now characterise the majority of “knowledge work” and that are being described in terms of swarms, collective intelligence, critical mass, etc. are perhaps the strongest manifestation of the shifting boundaries of the self. When we put together a network of agents who are individually fragmented by their interaction with their tools, and who organise their mutual activities around those fragments, is there an expansion or dilution of agency? Is the constant reciprocal appeal to contribute with small bits of information, tasks, exchange, just a more recent form of labour subdivision, or does it fundamentally alter the self's relation to others? Are we observing a growing instrumentation of relations that transforms others into data or, on the contrary—as many visionaries of the Internet (Rheingold 2002; Shirky 2008; Weinberger 2008) have asserted—the emergence of new forms of collective intelligence? The MIT Centre for Collective Intelligence has the following research question, which summaries the issue very well: “How can people and computers be connected so that— collectively—they act more intelligently than any individual, group, or computer has ever done before?”.

If this is the case, relinquishing attention to the collective flow is not a problem. Defending individual attention, as many popular commentators such as Nicholas Carr (2011) decry, is counterproductive, because attention must be renegotiated constantly for the collective intelligence to work. Phenomenologically, many people are already experiencing a sense of boundary redefinition between self and other when they are online (Gergen 2000). The experiences described by gamers, programmers and recently simply people who are heavily engaged in email exchanges, all suggest a sense of flow and participation that is described by some as a loss of agency, and by others as an exhilarating extension of means.

In order to understand how all of this is happening, we have to refer to our exceptional, species specific (as Tommasello 2008 has shown), capacity to join into other people's attention. The ability to envisage that other people have a state of mind different from one's own; the capacity to read other people's intentions; and, finally, the inclination to join into other people's attentional states, are skills that underlie human language, culture and co-construction. Joint attention is seen by developmental psychologists as a prerequisite for language acquisition, and is potentially what explains why humans are the only species that has developed language and advanced forms of collaboration. It is also potentially what is making the hyperconnection proper to the digital world such a double-edged sword. We are extraordinarily capable of collaborating with minimal information on very poor communication channels (think Twitter or SMS), because our powers of empathy are so developed and our capacity to infer and project meanings and intentions are supported by pragmatic processes of relevance (Sperber and Wilson 1995), which, again, rely on the sharing of attentional spaces. It is precisely this capacity for joint attention that causes us to feel lost in the inordinate flow of requests, messages, instructions and information so well described by Gergen (2000).

Our capacity to join into others' attentional spaces, read intentions from minimal traces, attribute meaning and co-ordinate around presumed shared mental states, means that we are able to collaborate on the reduced fragments of data because we can fill in the gaps. Clearly, when the experience is impoverished or the intentions of the other are too opaque and it is difficult to assume that the system is actually functioning with a principle of relevance, the communicational process becomes extremely costly. This cost may be part of the subjective feeling of loss and fatigue. In this case, the issue of attentional strain is not one of overload or excess, but of impoverishment, unintelligibility and incompleteness.

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