The strength of blogging
According to Habermas, language forms the basis of communicating. He uses the so called 'speech act theory' from Austin and Saerle to explain what happens whilst communicating (I'm not going to exlain what it all means, it's simply too much :). With every speech act (e.g. command, ask, declare) we make certain claims:
- the aspect of the rightness that the speaker claims for his action in relation to a normative context (or, indirectly, for these norms themselves);
- the truthfulness that the speaker claims for the expression of subjective experiences to which he has priviliged access;
- the truth that the speaker, with his utterance, claims for a statement. (Habermas, The Theory of communicative action, Volume 1: 307)
This means that while you are communicating to an other person you may reject the things that are said under each of these aspects. If you know that a person makes claims about the truth that you know are not true at all, you move on in the conversation by stating that the other person is not speaking according to the truth. This does not mean that a person also is untruthful at the same time, because the claims that person made about the truth can be based on a lack of the proper information. If the other person deliberately makes claims about the truth that are not factual true, this person is not acting communicatively but strategically. Then this persons intentions are to manipulate the other and also is not acting truthfully.
To be able to judge whether a person acts right, truthful and refers to the truth you need context about a person. Now in face-to-face meetings this can be judged best I think. People are able to pick up the smallest of signals indicating whether a person is being sincere. The way a person smiles, the way s/he shakes your hand, the way the person talks all give signals that add up to our judgement of a person.
But what happens if you're deprived of all those small clues? How are we able to judge a person in mediated communication? Especially through internetcommunication we have problems with this issue. Talking through the phone to eachother still gives some clues through intonation of the voice, it is a direct conversation which means that you get immediate and spontaneous reaction, you can hear someone laugh. Through e-mail, chatchannels and fora you have less clues. People have been aware of that and even used this lack of personal information to create 'unreal' identities.
To have real conversation through the internet, in terms of Habermas, we need context of a person to be able to judge whether we can trust someone. Weblogs are a good startingpoint to be able to get more clues. One can 'follow' a blog over time and judge whether the blogger is consistent over time, knowledgeable, sincere, truthful. You get clues about a certain style of someone just by looking at the interface of the blog. Often there is an 'about-page'. In this way the weblog is a far richer medium than chatting and discussionfora and that makes it a very strong medium for communication on the internet.
It becomes more interesting when people use a blog as a 'communicationhub'. You write in your blog about things you want to write about and allow readers to comment on that. It is interesting to see that other ways of communicating with the blogger are often being offered. Most bloggers offer an e-mail address for instance. Far more interesting is the use of VoIP (e.g. Skype) among bloggers, or adding each other to chatlists and sharing images of webcams. Combining different types of communication makes the possibilities for communicative action stronger.
So the weblog serves as a filter for reaching out to people with shared interests. While initiating contact through a weblog, you can intensify contact through VoIP, webcams and chatting etc. which adds up to a better judgement of the blogger behind the text.
This is why we need discourse according to Habermas
I haven't been blogging much lately, because I was writing my first draft of the chapter about Habermas' theory. My mentor told me to ask a question to Habermas that can be answered with his theory of communicative action. The question I asked: what is actually (good) communication? With that in mind I was able to take the two volumes of The theory of communicative action in my hand and look for interesting passages. A task that takes pretty much time and I'm glad I've got the English translation of his work. Reading in very formal German is just a bit over the top for me.
The general outline of the answer to what communication is, goes as follows:
We communicate to reach understanding. There are different types of action: intrumental action, strategic action and communicative action. Only the latter is a type of action which is oriented to reaching understanding.
Reaching understanding is a way of searching for true knowledge. Knowledge is bound between subjects according to Habermas and therefore true knowledge is time and situation bound. When people feel the need that certain validityclaims are not acceptable anymore (thus want to redefine true knowledge), they can switch to a higher level of communication: discourse. Discourse can be seen as a discussion that must meet up to certain conditions. Those conditions together are called an ideal speech situation which can be seen as 'good' communication (see also my earlier entry on Habermas).
What I'm going to investigate is whether weblogs meet up to these conditions of an ideal speech situation. Second, it's not for sure whether weblogging can be seen as a type of discourse. Habermas makes a distinction between discourse and different types of communicative action, the latter including conversation. Maybe blogging doesn't exceed the level of communicative action. But maybe the potential of this communication medium is bigger than it is used at the moment. I'm not sure what the outcome will be.
Maybe this entry raised more questions for you, but I hope to have made some things a little bit more clear.
Froomkin about the internet
In Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a critical theory of cyberspace, Michael Froomkin explains how the internet could be a place for public discourse. Here's an interesting passage:
- "Habermasian new spaces begin with individuals in "pluralistic, differentiated civil societies" who gradually unite in communities of shared interests and understanding. Using democratized access to a new form of mass media - the Internet - these individuals engage first in self-expression, then engage each other in debate. In so doing, they begin to form new communities of discourse." (p. 857)
Blogwalk seems to be the ultimate result of new communities of discourse, made possible by the medium weblog.
I've done my first period of reading about Habermas' theory of communicative action. Now it's time to summarize what I've learned so far.
The focus of my reading was to the ideas of Habermas about the ideal speech situation. His theory builds upon the idea that achieving knowledge is rooted in a subject-subject relationship, that is the relationship between people, instead of the description of rationality in terms of the subject-object relationship. Habermas explains: "The focus of investigation thereby shifts from cognitive-instrumental rationality to communicative rationality. And what is paradigmatic for the latter is not the relation of a solitary subject to something in the objective world that can be represented and manipulated, but the intersubjective relation that speaking and acting subjects take up when they come to an understanding with one another about something."(Habermas, Theory of communicative action I: 392).
The relationship between subjects is maintained through action. Habermas makes a distinction between three forms of action: instrumental action (oriented to succes, nonsocial), strategic action (oriented to succes, social) and communicative action (oriented to reaching understanding, social). Communicative action is the type of action in which people try to reach an agreement of 'true' knowledge. True is placed between brackets, because knowledge is contextual (different in time, place etc.). A discussion that evolves about certain things (e.g. about the ethics concerning blogging) is called a discourse. There are four levels in a discourse, which I will not explain further, but are relevant for the step towards formulating the ideal speech situation. According to Habermas free flow between the four levels of discourse is only possible when there is a communicative symmetry between the participants of the discourse. The conditions for this communicative symmetry together is what is called the ideal speech situation. These conditions are:
- all people involved must have equal opportunity to start a discourse;
- all people involved must have equal oppurtunity to participate in a discourse;
- there may not be any difference in power between the participants;
- the participants must be truthful to eachother.
All these conditions are meant to contribute to the exchange of true argumentation, that is that all arguments must be regarded before there can be a consensus between the participants of a discourse. That doesn't mean there will always be a consensus after participating in a discourse, one can agree to a dissensus as much to a consensus. When a consensus is achieved this doesn't mean that it's a definitive consensus. It can always be re-discussed in future time.
So far Habermas' theory. What can I say about weblogs regarding this theory? The question I have in mind at the moment is in what way the communicationtechnology weblog can contribute to achieving the ideal speech situation. To answer this question I will have to make clear that blogging is indeed a form of communicative action (a form of dialogue/conversation), which in my opinion is obvious, but there are still technological pessimists that believe computermediated contact can't be real communication.
Then there is the problem of technology involved. The things I've read about Habermas do not consider the question of the proper way of having a discourse. By that I mean whether true discourse can only take place through face-to-face contact or whether it is allowed to discuss through any media (e.g. scientific publication, telephone, e-mail etc.). My idea is that the more people can join a discourse worldwide, the more relevant arguments will be brought up and therefore any internetplatform is the most ideal situation (even though not the whole world is connected yet). Another problem forthcoming in the use of technology is the problem of trustworthiness of the people that communicate via the internet. How can you be sure that I'm a student of the Twente University? How do you know my name really is Elmine and that the picture published in my weblog is really a picture of me? For me a blog is more trustworthy than any other website, because bloggers to their best to be transparant about themselves. But maybe other people have a different opinion about that.
Finally, I will have to analyse the communicational culture between bloggers (and nonbloggers?). Are there differences in power between bloggers? And is the exchange of arguments on any topic between bloggers thruthful? These questions could be answered from the standpoint of the technology itself, that is in what way the technology used in blogging contributes to free flow of arguments between the participants. Those questions can also be analysed through the content of blogs, that is whether bloggers do argue truthful to try to achieve consensus. I'm not sure which point-of-view I would adopt for my masterthesis, maybe both.
Tomorow I will discuss the aspects mentioned above with my supervisor. Maybe he comes up with totally other questions. We will see.