Structural biases in trying to understand technology-mediated communication

I recently wrote a blog post for the Finnish national Speech Communication Association Prologos with the title Mikä ohjaa näkemystämme teknologiavälitteisestä viestinnästä? (What guides our understanding of technology-mediated communication?) In summary, I ponder there the prevalence and persistence of certain biases in thinking about communication technology that I have seen repeated over and over again throughout the years.

The first of these is the dichotomy between face-to-face and technology-mediated communication. Even if scholars and many practicioners nowadays understand, that technology does not exist in a vacuum, and that our everyday life is a muddled mixture of different communication affordances and the way we use them, in practice this division still comes up almost automatically. Sometimes it is quite subtle, such as when a new research project aims at understanding some newly found facet of communication technology, but as long as the study emphasises the new technology instead of trying to form a holistic picture, it ends up reinforcing the age-old dichotomy.

The other bias is our fascination with new technology at the expense of older and more established solutions. This one is also understandable, as we already know something of the old, and nothing of the new (not to mention that it is easier to get funding when you study something new). However, this has led, time and time again, to a situation where we think we understand technology-mediated communication, but actually just understand how its early versions have been used by early adopters in a time when the whole thing was new and exciting to them. How people actually use technology in their everyday life, as a “boring” part of very normal social interaction, is something we can only see once at least – I don’t know – ten years have passed since the introduction and popularization of said technology.

I know these biases are nothing new. They are also not going to disappear any time soon, if ever. Still, I feel like we ought to be aware of them every now and then, both when planning research projects, deciding on what technological solutions to introduce to our organization, thinking about needs and solutions that could lead to new directions for technological development… the lot. Understanding their power and prevalence might at the very least help us take them into account, even if we cannot truly escape them.

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