Immediacy and the We-Relationship

Schutz, Alfred. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Continuing the discussion of We-relationships from the last post, Schutz states that We-relationships can have many differences based on the way in which a participant is experienced by the other participant(s), such as being experienced with different degrees of immediacy, intensity, and intimacy or from a different point of view.

These distinctions apply equally to orientation relationships and to social interactions, determining in each of them the directness with which the partners “know” each other. …It is not only the object, therefore, that is experienced with greater or lesser directness; it is the relationship itself… (168).

In this way, one can consider the on-screen nature of the OVC as a different way in which one participant experiences the other. It is, by many definitions, a low level of immediacy in that the response rate is not immediate. The intensity, if I understand Schutz’ use of the term here, is relative to the conversation situation (topic, length, purpose, etc.). The intimacy level could be seen as relatively low in that the participants are not in the same room. However, it is in some ways more intimate in that the videos are generally experienced alone, yet there may be a feeling of simulation to some extent of a live interpersonal conversation.

[I]n the face-to-face situation I literally see my partner in front of me. As I watch his face and his gestures and listen to the tone of his voice, I become aware of much more than what he is deliberately trying to communicate to me. My observations keep pace with each moment of his stream of consciousness as it transpires. The result is that I am incomparably better attuned to him than I am to myself. (169).

Again, the way that an individual experiences a participant in the OVC is not unlike that of the FtF setting when looked at from the one-sided perspective. This quote above could refer to one experiencing the OVC up to the point of experiencing it as it unfolds. For the OVC participant viewing the recorded on-screen oration, the stream of consciousness does appear to unfold at that moment, and for that individual, it really does occur at that moment, despite the fact that it actually occurred at some point in the past, be it three minutes, hours, days or more.

Depending on how long that span is from one individual’s recording/posting of the video to another experiencing it, it might be considered a small lag–such as one might have if communicating on synchronous video overseas–or an unattached viewing of a recorded past event. I do not desire to create a structure of when such a turning point occurs, since such a structure would be somewhat subjective for each individual and agreement would not likely be found. This is to say a 5-minute span for one individual might clearly constitute a “lag” in a live conversation, while another might see such a span as a definite viewing of a past event. (I acknowledge that any viewing of a non-live, recorded video is technically in the past, even if the live event occurred seconds ago.)

Conversations can obviously occur in asynchronous settings; we do it daily with email and postal mail. However, we do not generally expect or perceive such a conversation setting as being anything but asynchronous. Email exchanges can occur within minutes (the time it takes one to receive, read, and respond) and can continue back and forth at this rate, thus bordering on a synchronous, albeit lagged, conversation. This rapid email exchange is not false synchronous communication nor it is attempting to simulate anything else; rather, it merely transpires with a level of immediacy so quickly that it transcends what we normally expect from the response time of email exchanges. In this way, it can be seen as a unique use of an established social communication and interaction method.

[S]ocial interaction consists in a continuous series of Acts of meaning-establishment and meaning-interpretation. All these different encounters with my fellow man will be ordered in multiple meaning-contexts: they are encounters with a human being as such, with this particular human being, and with this particular human being at this particular moment in time (169).

In the OVC setting, the concept of immediacy can be looked upon in a new and unique manner. For, when a participant experiences the video of the other participant, he or she is experiencing that person in a one-sided way and can respond immediately to the participant though a video means. In this way, that is the one-sided perspective, the experience operates to the full level of immediacy as does a FtF experience up to the point at which an orating participant is simultaneously aware at any live moment of the other person experiencing him or her and can ask immediate questions. The reciprocal awareness of the other participant in this setting occurs through a response to a video. An orator receiving a response is granted the awareness that the preceding video was received and experienced.

Schutz goes on to say, “It is further essential to the face-to-face situation that you and I have the same environment” (170). Again, my goal is not defend the OVC as a form of FtF communication. It is not. However, it is valuable to consider the similarities of the two communication methods to potentially determine the existent benefits of FtF communication that are present in the OVC. In this vein, one can see that while the participants are not in the same physical space, they can at least see one perspective of the participant’s environment behind the speaker. Additionally, the participants are in the same digital space. While this is not space that shares common carpet and wallpaper, it is an important point in that it speaks to how the participants navigate the environment and what they see as part of the visual. We may not be able to say that we are sitting at the same table, but we can say with more or less certainty that we are looking at the same digital interface. This is not unlike considering the buttons on a two-way audio communication device or the phone/Plexiglas combination that is used to communicate in a prisoner-visitor communication setting. The buttons, visual options, screen size and resolution, and connection speed all are aspects of the environment in which each participant operates.

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