Conversation and Technology

Conversation and Technology by Ian Hutchby (2001)

Chapter 1 Introduction: Technologies for Communication
There is an assumed dichotomy of technology and language, where the two exclude each other. Hutchby disagrees and pitches the idea of technologies for communication (2). What is the relationship between forms of technology and structures of social interactions? He writes, “My central argument is that we can learn more about the nature of human communication by observing how it is affected by technology, and, correspondingly, we can learn more about the social nature of communications technologies by thinking about how they both rely upon and transform basic human communicative patterns” (3). Conversational analysis uncovers the rules and production of conversation (4).

Focusing on affordances allows for explanations on how surrounding are experienced and interpreted. Affordances are in the material and are seen as potential. Design is included in this for Hutchby. Media ideologies inform how we interpret affordances.

How does the affordances of a cell phone/telephone influence how people use it?
-contact list
-call screening
-spatial use
-frequency/temporal constraints
-immediacy vs. delayed

Chapter 2 The Communicative Affordances of Technological Artefacts
Hutchby’s aim is the specific forms of social interaction that have evolved around “technologies for communication”. The argument is centered around the network interplay between the norms of structured conversation/interactions and the communicative affordances offered by different forms of technology.

Technological determinism is the view that forms of technology actively cause new forms of social relations to come about (14-15).

Interaction (between social and technical elements) vs. (socio-technical) networks -(16)

Latour describes as small ‘virtual societies’; day-to-day activities of a city’s inhabitants are technologically transformed into predictable flows of demand on the system’s capacities (18)

Actor-network theory represents a small but important wing within the contemporary sociology of technology; this begins by explaining the dichotomy they reject– material/semiotic or self/other or human/non-human. Rejecting dualisms allows ANT to assume that entities are relational to other entities. They suggests that entities collapse historical/economic relationships. Everything is condensing heterogenous relationships and interacting with other things that have condensed other heterogenous relationships. Networks are made up of the actions between these entities. The “hyphen” in ANT is the constant flow between the two. The main question then is how do relationships condense into these people or objects? This is what ANT hinges on. Entities have no inherent qualities, so there are no functioning dualisms. (Semiotics of materiality). Profoundly social.

Relational materiality is the basis of ANT; entities achieve form as a consequence of the relationships. Four consequences of the relational model in ANT.

  1. Everyone and everything contributes (has agency). What labor goes into disguising this?
  2. Not all actants are the same (because of the difference in physically). Materiality really matters.
  3. All performance (it’s uncertain, not pre-scribed, unstable and reversal). Durability is an achievement and needs to be analyzed.
  4. Actants are all network effects (continuing into the future and sustaining)

What’s the cost of navigating certain networks over others?

ANT is devoid of power criticism in Latour’s eyes.

Comes out of sociology of science and anthropology of science; geography. technology studies. human-animal studies. philosophy.

Intermediator: transparent
Mediator: constantly transforming the substance of the flow of a network.
Immutable mobiles: maintain shape as they move through networks, like maps
Black boxes: conceals complexities; the thing you engage with to avoid dealing with all the other stuff that led up to it.

21- What they are arguing is that what counts as ‘the technology’ is just as much the outcome of interpretive accounts – some more persuasive than others – as is what counts as the technology’s ‘uses’ or ‘effects’.

33- By utilizing the concept of affordances, we can avoid the arbitrariness of the radical constructivist position, with its single-minded view that the discourses surrounding technologies are the only phenomena with any possible sociological (and social) relevance, and also evade the equally unilateral epistemology associated with technological determinism.


Chapter 4 Talk-in-interaction

60- Sacks et al. (1974) note three very basic facts about conversation: (a) turn-taking occurs, (b) one speaker tends to talk at a time, and (c) turns are taken with as little gap or overlap between them as possible. This is not to claim that there is never more than one speaker talking at a time, or that gaps and overlaps do not occur. Rather, the point is that the ideal is for as much inter-speaker coordination as possible.

Turn-construction units: (1) projectability and (2) ‘transition-relevance places’

64- This set of rules, or ‘practices’ or ‘usages’, provides a basic matrix within which conversation analysts have provided empirically grounded descriptions of the interactively managed organization of communicative behaviour in a huge range of social contexts and for a wide variety of everyday social actions.

this builds compelling accounts of structural organization in overlapping talk

76- the argument of this and the previous chapter, in which I placed the emphasis on communication as a performance in interactive space rather than the product of ‘real’, internal mechanics, may seem to invert the argument of chapter 2, where I favoured an emphasis on the material and constraining properties of artefacts over the performed nature of their existence as ‘texts’.

79- the overall thrust of the book is to investigate whether new ways of engaging in interpersonal communication may emerge at the interface between the communicative affordances of artefacts and the normative structures of talk-in-interaction itself. In fact, the stronger formulation of this idea is that, because any technological artefact possesses some affordances and not others, humans are forced to find ways of managing their communicational endeavours in the light of those affordances, and this frequently means that changes will be made in the ways that interactional conventions operate in conversations

Chapter 5 The Telephone: Technology of Sociability

the telephone is an artefact which has certain kinds of affordances, and those affordances both enable what can be done with it and constrain what cannot. Putting the question slightly differently, then, what is the nature of human telephonic talk, given the affordances of that technology for communication? Is it different from non-telephonic talk, and if so, what are the ways in which the telephone thereby becomes a player in the developing structures of conversational interaction?

81- A series of adverts ran on television and in the press featuring various everyday uses of the telephone and focusing on the different ways that given categories of persons in our culture supposedly relate to the telephone as a communications medium.

82- intimate and practical implications

Chapter 6 Telephone Interaction and Social Identity

Chapter 7 Technological Mediation and Asymmetrical Interaction

Chapter 8 Computers, Humans and Conversation

Chapter 9 Virtual Conversation

Chapter 10 Conclusion: A Reversion to the Real?
“an acceptance that our interpretations and uses of technological artefacts, while important, contingent and variable, are constrained in analysable ways by the ranges of affordances that particular artefacts, by virtue of their materiality, possess” (193).

This ‘third way’ between the (constructivist) emphasis on the shaping power of human agency and the (determinist) emphasis on the constraining power of technical capacities has enabled me to argue that the affordances of technological media for interaction shape the nature of sociality – as manifested in the sequential organizations of conversation – that users are involved in. 196

what sense of reality is relevant?

It is in this sense, then, that I invoke the concept of normative structures of talk-in-interaction, and in this sense that I construe them as a ‘reality’. 205

I argue that the perspective adopted in this book lies somewhere between the poles of realism and relativism. Both the normative structures of talk-in-interaction, and the communicative affordances of artefacts, are relative in the sense that they are functional aspects which only become relevant, and hence visible, in the light of particular actions. (205)


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