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Exploring in-person

Kaleidoscopic experiments in embodiment, materiality, and time

Published onApr 13, 2021
Exploring in-person
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In this season of COVID-19 related isolation and physical distancing, the words “synchronous” and “asynchronous” have become commonplace terms for how we describe our connections with each other: they are either “at the same time” (synchronous) or “not at the same time” (asynchronous) (for example, “online” classes are often described as synchronous or asynchronous). Similarly, we label our interactions with each other as “in person,” where we share the same physical space, or as “virtual,” where we do not (for example, “today is a virtual instruction day” or “next month we will return to in person learning”). Under COVID-19, these two sets of terms have also regularly been used to describe professional meetings and academic conferences (such as this one!), as well as work and social engagements more broadly.

Invitation: What words or phrases are used in your context or in your language for these distinctions? Are there similar challenges?

In this reflection, we wish to explore and challenge the binary nature of both of these sets of terms, not only because we experience the world as being far more complex than this—and so, a nuanced consideration of these terms may lead us to new insights and exciting possibilities—but also because we see these terms as being unhelpful (and, oftentimes problematic) descriptors of relationality and embodied presence, leading to unnecessary and unhelpful limits to what we understand as “in-person.” In the sections that follow, we invite you to explore these two sets of terms with us as a jumping off point for looking anew at time, embodiment, and materiality, particularly as these might then help stimulate our curiosity around the nature of the human person, of our relationships with one another, and of our relationships with the technologies that constitute us.

As we go along, we invite you to consider your own presence and personness in the midst of this conversation and with awareness of the materiality by which you are engaging us here. For example, the screenshot below captures one moment of participation for one of us: we are talking over Zoom, looking together at a shared screen of this page, and simultaneously editing this page in another tab:

Screenshot of authors working on this PubPub space
Image 1

Work-in-progress screenshot

Might the moment captured by this screenshot be considered an “in-person” experience? Is it a virtual one? Is a moment like this best understood as synchronous or asynchronous? Is it embodied? Where are the various spots that presence shows up here? Is the answer different depending on whether we are asking these questions of Debbie (the one who took the screenshot and who had this “view,” including a view of herself via her webcam), or Michael (the collaborator and conversation partner captured by the image on the top right), or Amy (from the iPhone photo in the lower left corner)? What is it like for you, right now?

Invitation: As you engage this collaborative site (PubPub), we invite you to be attentive to your own presence, your own embodiment, your own sense of time, and your own experience with materiality. Does it shift (how does it shift) as you go through this paper? Is it different when you comment or read the comments of other participants? Does it change when we ask you questions, as in this “invitation” space?

Warm-up Experiments

To begin, we invite you to join us in a few small warm-up experiments. For the first, we would ask you to simply take a moment to think about the various communication technologies you use, and whether you would tend to categorize those as synchronous or asynchronous (and, perhaps then, what criteria you use for such differentiation). Once you have done that, we would invite you to spend an extra moment to think about texting: is texting a synchronous activity or an asynchronous one? For those of us with iPhones or similar devices, the blinking three dots (indicating that the other person is typing) perhaps makes this even more complicated:

Can you feel the anticipation? Are you now sitting waiting for the response? Does this waiting disrupt the moment and space you are sitting or standing in?Are you “present,” “in the present”? And where? Is “present” spatial, temporal, both or neither? Is this synchronous, or not synchronous? Does it matter? Notice even this image, an animated screen capture of a moment in a SMS chat holds the movement of the 3 dots. What is our relationship to time and space in these media? The layers of media we are constantly negotiating challenge our ability to locate ourselves in a clear relationship with the time of another. And this is really what we are exploring, not our own isolated relationship to time, but our relationship to the time and embodiment of another/others.

For the second, we invite you to sit for a moment with the adjective “virtual.” (And, we mean that literally — sit with it!) Right now, you are reading this text and viewing these images on a screen. Is this a virtual experience? What is your body doing, feeling, needing? What are the materialities involved in this experience? Does it matter whether you are engaging this text via a large screen, a mobile device, in your living room, with a cup of coffee in your hands? Does it change (how does it change?) if you are using an audio screen reader, or have music on in the background, or have other people in the room with you, or can smell something baking? If “virtual” is meant to be the antonym of “in-person,” in what ways is your person-ness present or absent in this encounter (and, does it matter)?

Finally, let’s put the two together. It is easy to think of what we typically call “in-person” and “synchronous” engagements as being more real, rich, and/or personal. It is also easy—especially in these days of COVID isolation—to think of real, rich, and/or personal experiences where we shared space, time, touch, and air with someone we love (i.e., “in-person” and “synchronous”). There is no doubt that these moments can be, and sometimes are, deeply personal (person-ish?) and meaningful; they make us who we are. But, when we pause and reflect, and take an attitude of curiosity rather than familiarity, we can just as easily think of occasions (literally, “times”) when we had what we typically call “in-person” and “synchronous” occasions that were not meaning-full or person-full. We’d invite you to pause here and think of a few of these: perhaps an onsite lecture with little interaction between speakers and listeners, a grocery line where other humans were simply objects of annoyance and barriers to task-completion, a conversation with a loved one where presence was lacking and our minds were on other things, a moment when we were “absent-minded.” As we add layers here, perhaps this can also open us to suspicion and curiosity about the ways we think about (and, even, experience with our bodies) “asynchronous” and “virtual” engagements, and especially the ways in which our bodies and selves show up to and are constituted by these spaces.

Our Hypotheses

In the spirit of a laboratory, we come to this work with hypotheses to be tested. We propose (and wish to test with you) that:

  • The terms “synchronous” and “asynchronous” are messier than they seem, and suggest a sometimes-unhelpful binary.

  • The terms “in-person” and “virtual” are messier than they seem, and suggest an incredibly unhelpful binary.

  • What we call asynchronous and virtual spaces are differently embodied spaces, not disembodied spaces, and attention to these embodiments enhance our understandings of what it means to be human and what it means to be relational; our sense of what it means to be “in person” can and should be expanded in light of these various observations.

  • Reflection on time, materialities, and embodiment brings us again to questions about media and mediality, including how we form and are formed by our entanglements with non-human companions.


Testing the Hypotheses:

1) Experiments in time

By their very nature—or, at least, their linguistic construction—the words “synchronous” and “asynchronous” are established as binaries and opposites.  We see this, for example, in as ordinary a setting as the Merriam Webster dictionary, which defines synchronous as “happening, existing, or arising at precisely the same time” and defines asynchronous as “not simultaneous or concurrent in time not synchronous.” And, in the world of education, and perhaps other contexts, the two terms are used—again as binaries and opposites—to describe modes of (online) engagement and interaction.  Here, though, we see that the terms are used not only to describe relationships with/in time, but also to describe qualitative differences (where “synchronous” is seen as more real and more present than “asynchronous”) as well as to evoke specific materialities and modalities (where “synchronous” is the label given to video technology such as Zoom and “asynchronous” to learning management systems such as Canvas or Blackboard, or even to a site such as this PubPub).

When we bring our sense of curiosity to this framing, though, it begins to unravel quickly. Most simply, we might note that Zoom includes “asynchronous” components (the meeting request, the recording after the event) and a learning management system includes “synchronous” ones (live chat, collaborative writing tools). And, if we look again at the initial definitions I shared above, the idea of “at precisely the same time” challenges even our sense of streaming video as synchronous, when we know it includes both perceptible and imperceptible lags between sender and receiver.  In fact, it might make more sense to talk about “imperceptibly asynchronous” rather than evoking synchronicity at all (or, as I have suggested elsewhere, perhaps “semi-synchronous” is a more useful term). Beyond these two “corrections,” looking closely allows us to begin to see that the categories themselves are perhaps not doing the work we might hope they would do—a theme that we will return to a bit later in this piece. And so, rather than setting up binary categories (so that something is either X or not-X) or even using the language of continuum (so that something exhibits varying degrees of X), perhaps we would do better to bring a kaleidoscopic lens to this work, allowing us to talk about different kinds of a/synchronicity in a shifting and ever-changing network of relationships.

Curiosity also leads us to explore why we use terms like synchronous and asynchronous to talk about online experiences but not ones where we are onsite together. There are, for example, numerous synchronous and asynchronous experiences—or, varying degrees or kinds of a/synchronicity—in a “traditional” onsite classroom. Small group discussions might be described as a synchronous experience, with lectures a bit closer to a semi-synchronous experience (where one person speaks and time passes before others can engage the speaker). Homework assignments or pre-course readings might be asynchronous components, as might quizzes or research papers. It is interesting to me that we do not use those terms in onsite contexts, even though most instructors and students would identify the whole range of time-experiences as being part of the learning environment. It seems that whatever work the terms are doing as they relate to online learning (or, online conferences and meetings), one would think they could do the same work in onsite ones—unless they are also doing other work to which we aren’t currently attending.

Invitation: Have you seen terms like synchronous and asynchronous (or related terms from your context and language) applied to onsite experiences? If so, where, and what work do you see those terms doing in those settings?

Here, I think, we start to wander more fully into the ways in which the label of synchronicity is tied in with value-based interpretations. In my context, I see this most vividly as it relates to meetings and events…and even this conference. The “real” part of the event is understood to be the synchronous space, and everything else (the “asynchronous”) is easily called the pre-meeting work or post-meeting wrap-up. And, all of this “pre-meeting” work is understood to fall in the same category of asynchronous, even as it takes different forms (me thinking on my own, me talking with friends, us writing collaboratively, you making comments on our work, and so on). And, in most cases, the synchronous is seen as the engaged/meaningful/interesting space (even described as “real time”) and the asynchronous as work we do at our own time and on our own (as if any learning or scholarship—or, life—can be done by the individual alone). Again, curiosity lets us us challenge this division, even if just by remembering how many boring Zoom lectures or diatribes we’ve sat through this year, when the chat screens or text messages or emails or discussion boards are where we’ve found life and energy and relationality. Curiosity and the twist of the kaleidoscope also allows us to notice that time is a complicated value, that we co-create each other even across distances of modality and time, and that attending to a diversity of engagements with modality and time might be our best way to support a diversity of learners (and relationships).

I linger on this not because I’m overly intrigued by wordplay or invested in clear definitions, but rather because I am both curious and concerned by the cumulative ways in which these terms are used, including the ways our language use tricks us into thinking that these distinctions are neutral, common-sense, and obvious. Our experiments show us that they are none of these things; not only are these terms messier than they seem (our experiences in time with each other flow in multiple directions, not as an yes/no switch or a simple continuum) but setting them up as binary opposites seems to elevate some experiences (the “real” or the “real-time”) while minimizing the others, leaving us with unhelpfully limited (and, I might even suggest, damaging or de-meaning) senses of how and where the person resides.

2) Experiments in materiality/embodiment

One of our core assumptions in these experiments is that online and digital spaces are material in at least two ways. First of all, every bit of what we engage on screens and this keyboard on which I type and the servers that provide access to PubPub and the compute power that drives Alexa telling me the weather in the morning is made out of material objects. We won’t take time here to explore the vast environmental impact of this digital materiality, but the magnitude of this impact is at least a reminder that our relationship with technologies is fundamentally material. There are most certainly differences between biological bodies and machinic bodies, but all day, these two materialities are constantly in relationship and they undoubtedly shape one another in material ways. For more context on the materiality of the digital, see Johanna Drucker’s work on Performative Materiality, which builds on Matthew Kirschenbaum’s earlier work on the materiality of new media and digital literature.

More importantly for our considerations of personness in online spaces, these digital objects we engage, such as screens and websites and keyboards and videos and headsets, have structures with limits and tendencies that entangle with our bodies to shape possible and even likely actions and interactions (watch Bernard Stiegler outline his idea of tertiary retention as he discusses Gilbert Simondon’s notion of information). One helpful way to consider this shared materiality in our interface with digital technologies is through the idea of affordances. At its most basic, an affordance is any possible relationship between an actor and a given environment or environmental object. For example, for me as an actor, stairs afford climbing, a chair affords sitting, my keyboard affords typing, and my iPad screen affords zooming in with a reverse pinch gesture. What I appreciate most about considering affordances is the consistent reminder that interface is an interaction of materialities, co-creating a space of possibility and limit through encounter. Careful attention to the particular affordances of different interfaces can help us see the value of different modes of embodiment as we bring our person to encounters in a building and on a screen.

Amy doing school from home with Winston alongside.
Image 2

In Person?

Math Class

I love this image as an experiment in different embodiments. This is a photo I took with my iPhone in my backyard, while my daughter, Amy, was in Math class “at” school just before Summer 2020. Covid had brought us into a stay at home order and closed the school buildings all over our city. So, Amy and I and the rest of our family were doing school and work all from a shared location, our home. This particular day, the weather was nice and Amy was a bit fed up with her desk space in her room. So, in her pajama pants and bare feet, she ventured out to the back porch with our dog Winston and his trusty stuffed animal pillow to join in on her Math course. Their school district was using a combination of Google Meet and Schoology (along with a proliferation of other tools) to create different kinds of learning opportunities for students. None of this learning was called or considered “in person.” Instead, these learning moments, whether occurring in a shared digital interface at the same time or not, are called online, remote, and virtual.

Invitation: In what ways is Amy less “in person” in this Math course than if she were in the school building at a desk?

I have a friend who gets very annoyed when I raise concerns about this “in person” language. Rightfully, he notes that everyone in the conversation knows what we mean by “it will be nice to go back to meeting in person” while we are all on a Zoom call talking to each other and looking at each other in the face. It is this, that we all seem to know what is meant by this “in person” distinction, which drives the heart of these experiments here. What work is this “in person” distinction doing for us? What dispositions are we developing by consistently suggesting that interaction online is NOT in person or even LESS in person? Is it any wonder that my daughter Amy feels less engaged in her Math class she is participating in from our backyard? If we are not asking her to bring her person to these online learning encounters, why would we expect anything more?

Let’s push this image another level in terms of embodiment. I have shared this snapshot of my life in this static webpage with you and other readers. In this interface here, we do not have the interaction in shared time and digital space that my daughter had with her Math class on Google Meet, a moment of which I captured with this photo. Yet, is it possible that I am “in person” on this page? Are the words I type here a material expression of my person? For me, sharing this picture of my family, my backyard, the routine of my life, which all deeply shape me as a person, is a form of asynchronous embodiment that brings my person into this interface. In fact, in some ways, I feel more “in person” here in this space than I do in many conference rooms where I can smell the other people in the room.

If we agree that it is possible for me to be “in person” here on this page and for you, the reader, to bring your person to the engagement with this page, then I ask again, what work is this “in person” distinction doing for us and is it the work we want being done?

~~~~~~~~~~~~

I am sitting alone in my apartment as I read Michael’s reflections about Amy in their backyard.  I was alone in my apartment when he texted to say he’d added a section to this PubPub.  I’ve been alone in my apartment for most of the past year, doing “virtual” work, “virtual” dinner parties, and “virtual” conferences like this one.  I totally get what Michael’s friend notes: of course we know what we mean when we say “it will be nice to go back to meeting in person.”  My body knows it has been 154 days since my last hug or intentional touch from a person who cares for me, a year since my last day in the office or meal in a restaurant with a friend.  My body knows that presenting at this conference will be different over Zoom than if we had traveled to be with each other; I deeply miss airplanes and exploring new places and going out to talk about our ideas after a day of presentations. It’s not the same. We know. 

But, do we?  The language of virtual and in-person—and, similarly, of synchronous and asynchronous—gives voice to part of my experience while also silencing so much of it; it works a bit like the sleight of hand of a magician, distracting us from paying attention to things that matter. Like Michael, I am more in-person on this screen than in many conference rooms —and not just as a snapshot of my person-ness (e.g., telling personal stories) but as a fully embodied being. I am really here. And, it’s not only that my body creates or reacts to this “virtual” environment, but that my body/self is just as constituted by these experiences and relationships as by any others. As such, the language of “virtual” is, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a negation of the fullness of the encounter (and, even, my person-ness) itself. 

When Michael texts me, for example, it is not a virtual experience. I hear a sound (the chime of the text) and feel a vibration on my wrist (my apple watch notifications). My gaze shifts, my heart rate and breathing change, and even though just a moment ago I was caught up in my own world, he now is present to/with me. When I open this screen and look at what he’s written here—which I guess should be called an “asynchronous” experience—I smile at the way he uses words, and at the questions he asks, and at the picture of his backyard, and I instinctively wiggle my toes when I see Amy’s bare feet and can almost feel the sunshine from the picture. My body is responding and my mood is changing, now, even though he is not “here” and we are not “together” or interacting “at the same time.”  For me, none of this is virtual, and my experience with time (when he writes, when I read) does not define the quality of interaction; it is not absent of meaning or less meaningful just because I’m not currently in his backyard or near the desk where he stands to write his reflections in this space.

When I say it is not virtual, I don’t mean that being alone in my apartment is “just as good” or “the same” as being in the backyard together; it’s also not “almost as good” or “nearly the same.” In fact, the reason I know it’s not the same is because I’m embodied both places. If I were there at the moment of the photograph, I’d be drinking a good beverage, eavesdropping on Amy and Winston, sneezing from the pollen, feeling the altitude. Sitting here, I’m in my comfortable weekend clothes, with a photo I can look back at time and again, and as attentive to you all as potential readers (most of whom I have not yet met) as I am to him and to myself. The two experiences are different, and engage me (including my body and the fullness of my self) in different ways—but, the experiences are not categorical opposites, nor is one the lesser or shadow version of the other.

The example with Michael might be too easy; I imagine his voice when I read his words, and I’ve been in the backyard where Amy sits to do her classwork. But I similarly cringe whenever I hear about “virtual” work (and, I think back on the fights I’ve had with folks over email and zoom this past year, and how my frustration or anger responses have been completely embodied) or about “virtual” dinners (where I really do cook and eat food, involving all of my senses, for better or worse). My “person” (and, the “person” of others) is very much “in” these experiences. I’ve been struck by some of the recent research about “zoom fatigue” that suggests that it’s not so much that we have fewer person-cues (e.g., just seeing someone from the shoulders up and in two dimensions) but that we actually pay more attention to each other on a Zoom call (e.g., constant eye contact, leaning in to each other, and “nonverbal overload”). From this perspective, one could suggest that a Zoom meeting might actually be more “in person” than an on-site meeting. Or, at a minimum, it reminds us once again that these are differently embodied spaces, not disembodied spaces. And so, again: what work is this “in person” distinction doing for us, and is it the work we want being done?

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The way the pubpub space works encourages us to indicate where one designer’s words end and another’s begin. Notice the tildes above, which Debbie added before and after her reflection on Amy’s photo. What parts of the collaborative construction process encourage such a practice of differentiation? And can we find any parallels in the way we differentiate persons or embodiments?

~~~(Debbie again here): I thought about the tildes before I put them in; I wanted to distinguish the perspective of the person who took the photo of Amy from the reflections of one at a greater distance from it, and, since Michael had identified that he felt “in person” in this space, I didn’t want to step on that personness by blurring it with my own. But, of course, this just raises the question of “in person” once again. Some would suggest, for example, that we are more “in person” when we are seen and heard as being our individual selves (whether onsite together or via synchronous interactive video)—so, I know it is Michael speaking because I hear his voice or see his body move; cues which are lost here. And yet, as studies of women and BIPOC folks in the academy and the workplace show, it is quite common for us to speak and not be seen or heard, and for someone else later to take credit for our idea. We can be “in person” but not be recognized as being there at all, or only in a way that is filtered by both the sender and the receiver of the message. Back to our example here, perhaps if you already know us well, you can “hear” our different “voices” in this text, or perhaps it helps you navigate this text if we identify our authorship as we go along. But, does it even matter which one lives with Amy and which one lives alone, or which ideas we came up with “on our own” (as if such a thing is possible) and which were collaboratively developed (or, stolen from elsewhere!)? How about if one of us goes back and edits what someone else wrote—even in a section where we are very “in person”? It is perhaps a question for the reader: are you more comfortable if you know which of us is speaking? Does it matter? Does it make us more or less present/in-person? Why? ~~~

Debbie’s questions about the language of virtual and the privilege of the synchronous distancing us from our person and perhaps even from other persons reminds me of the rich and complicated notion of proximity in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. We typically think of proximity as simple nearness in space. Yet, what I hear in Levinas (through the interface of words and most often words in translation) is a proximity that involves an approach of/by the other that maintains an irreducible distance.

Invitation: Above, I said, “what I hear in Levinas… .” Does this common practice of referencing the work of an author by simply invoking their name indicate something about how we image that author’s person being available through their works and words? Would it be better for me to say, “what I hear in Levinas’s writing… ?”

Given my math background, proximity as approach with an irreducible distance has always conjured for me the image of an asymptote. Simply stated, an asymptote is a line that approaches a curve but never contacts it as the curve extends to infinity.

Asymptote - StefanPohl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In this image, the green line is an asymptote of the red curve. They infinitely approach one another, yet there remains an infinitely irreducible distance between them. I have often wondered if this rich notion of proximity as asymptotic encounter might provide a way for us to consider how different embodiments and different mediated environments afford human encounter that retains this irreducible distance/difference. In some ways, asynchronous and digital spaces remind us of this necessary distance more readily than synchronous or “in building” gatherings do. As Debbie noted above, perhaps we can learn from these different digital embodiments that this distance is also at work in all of the other embodiments which give higher priority to affordances for seeing, knowing, understanding one another in ways that can become reductive or even consumptive.

For Levinas, proximity is enacted in the “face to face.” I have explored the relationship between the face to face in Levinas and digital interfaces in more detail elsewhere. It is not lost on me that “face to face” language is often used as a synonym for what is typically thought of as “in person.” Given the asymptotic notion of the face to face, could it be that this encounter is as possible or even more possible in asynchronous or digital spaces?

Invitation: In Totality and Infinity, Levinas identifies this face to face as religion. Do religion and theology provide some unique contributions to these experiments with embodiment, materiality, and time?

Voice and Sound

Relations by textualpotential

What does sound afford that might provide different material encounters than the image above or this text you are reading now? I have to admit, I love sound, voice, and audio. Most of the “reading” I do these days is listening to audio books, or PDFs read by AI driven high definition voices in my favorite new reading app, Speechify. I am an avid NPR and podcast listener, from This American Life and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, to This Week in Machine Learning and AI and The Last Archive.

I used a SoundCloud embed here instead of ingesting the audio file into PubPub for a few explicit material reasons:

  1. The built in voice memo recorder on my iPad Pro records files in a format called .m4a, which is not a supported format on PubPub. This reminds us that even digital audio files can have different material encodings that afford different possibilities and limits.

  2. I love that SoundCloud shows the waveforms of the audio as it plays, reminding us again that sound is fundamentally material. Sound waves have different amplitudes and strike the bones and tissues of our ears to pass along the vibrations to our brains, where sense is made of the sound. This visual translation of the auditory phenomenon also reminds us that we are constantly translating our person across different materialities.

  3. Without intention on my part, SoundCloud chose a background image for the audio embed that happened to include just my mouth and not my eyes (this may not be true on all display sizes). I can choose any background image to help add some context to this audio piece, but this felt rather fitting as it is. One of the things I love about sound is its ability to challenge the dominance of sight as a mode of perception and encounter (it is not lost on me that my enjoyment of the audio waveforms above reinforces this deference to sight).

  4. SoundCloud affords high surface area engagement with the audio, by allowing listeners to comment and have conversation at any point in the audio and locates this conversation at the moment the listener engages. Before I realized that the embed would still allow for this commenting, I considered including a written transcript of the audio here so that people could comment on specific bits of the audio. Now, I do not need to do that because the audio itself can host a conversation.

Invitation: Which asynchronous material embodiment (text, image, audio, or video) feels most vulnerable to you and why?

Audio has a very close relationship with time. Much more explicitly than our encounters with text tend to have. Notice that the SoundCloud embed indicates how long the recording is and the time is displayed as the audio is played. Even though some text based platforms, e.g. Medium, are now beginning provide approximate “time to read” indicators, rarely do we have a clock ticking while we read. Here duration and speed have an impact on my encounter with this audio presence. When I am listening to audio books, I often adjust the speed of playback depending on the kind of material I am listening to. When I am listening to more dense and complicated philosophical works like Yuk Hui’s On the Existence of Digital Objects, I slow the speed way down, listening even more slowly than my eyes would pass over the words on a page. Whereas, I might listen to fiction at 1.4X speed. Changing these speeds shifts the tonality and the cadence of a piece, which has significant impact on how I engage it. Recently, I was listening to Toni Morrison read her novel, The Bluest Eye, and I realized that the poetry of her cadence was not as compelling for me at faster speeds, so I slowed it down and it sang again. Does this ability to adjust the time and speed of my encounter with an another’s work diminish or reduce the in personness of the author in these encounters? Does the degree of our ability to manipulate the materialities of encounter offer a way to differentiate kinds of embodiments?

How is this encounter with audio different if it is a digitally produced voice reading something that I wrote? How does this material digital audio artifact relate to my person as it encounters your person?

Audio 1

I used Amazon Polly with a Neural Net based voice to read this text and downloaded to mp3 for upload here into PubPub.

Invitation: What does this difference feel like to you? Does it matter whether you already were familiar with “Michael’s voice” before you heard the two samples?

Proliferation of Presence

Proliferation of Presence

Video continues to expand the layers of materiality we can encounter in these online spaces. We thought it would be fun to run an experiment where Debbie and I would “simultaneously” be working in the PubPub space while sharing screen on a Zoom meeting.

Invitation: What do you see, hear, or notice from this video? Where does presence and the “in-person” show up? You might also look back at the screen capture (Image 1, in the second paragraph of this essay). Where do you observe presence there—and is it different in a screen capture than in the video clip?

Learnings

Invitation: What do you see as the key learnings (and/or, remaining questions and experiments to run) at this point in our reflections? We intend to fill this section out after we’ve had opportunities for engagement and conversation with you.


Comments
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Wolfgang Sigler: And a last point it the question of group experience: In retreats, I can usually rely on the group “carrying through” single participants who dare to open up and sometimes crack a little as they face fears or express inner realities they had not had the chance to find words for before. In my personal experience so far, this group feature does not work in the same way in online retreat meetings. This time, I felt the whole weight of maintaining the framework on my shoulders as the retreat leader, rather than as carried jointly by the group. But this practice of maintaining the framework, at least to me, seems to be an integral part of many learning processes, especially from the perspective of a holistic individual development.
Debbie Creamer: This is the sort of design question that Michael and I work on all the time. My hunch again (and, I know I’m a bit of a broken record here!) is that most of us are just more familiar with the onsite experiences (such as retreats) and so we do certain practices “automatically,” and these don’t simply happen automatically in online spaces — so, I think of it as a learned behavior, rather than a “natural” one, and one that serves some folks better than others. As we interact in online spaces, we might need some patience, coaching, or new practices to be able to reach similar experiences to those familiar onsite ones — and, as we do that, it gives us new opportunities to reflect again on those onsite ones, making the familiar curious, and perhaps recognizing a bit more clearly for whom such practices work (people who are used to the “culture of retreat,” people who are confident in their voice or compliant enough to answer questions or uncomfortable enough with silence) and those for whom they work less well (in my context, that would include women and people of color, who are often silenced or unheard by white men, as well as folks with certain cognitive or emotional differences).Still, I really appreciate your nudging about how close and distance engagement are different. You (during the zoom call) and Michael (in this paper) mentioned smell — we can each engage scent individually online, but we cannot directly share that experience — and your comment about “virtual beer” reminds us that while we can each have a beer as we gather online (I still have a body, and it still likes beer!), we cannot pour a beer for each other (at least, not the same way). It may be that technology in the future helps mediate some of these gaps, but they still are not the *same* experience. That’s where a lot of my curiosity and energy comes from — not trying to make them the same, but unpacking more carefully what it is that makes them different, and then noting that “onsite” includes just as many differences within itself as it does in the “gap” between onsite and online (in other words, it’s just as interesting to look at the differences *within* a given category as it is to look at the ones *between* the two categories, which again raises the question of what work the categories are doing for us and whether it’s the work we want/need them to do.)
Wolfgang Sigler: Another point would be distortions of the communication through the boundaries of technological means. If everyone except the speaker switch off their microphone, this creates the perception of an “intense silence” listening to the speaker.In the pastoral context, in which I work, this can even be intimidating. To solve this problem, we started to have one or two further mics open, just to slide in the occasional “mhm” and “oh, yeah” that helps avoid the worst distortions of the communicative reality in the group.
Debbie Creamer: This is a fun point! I wonder, though, using the earlier question of whether we’re all cyborgs anyhow, whether it might be possible to note that all communication is distorted? For example, the way I hear my own voice (tone, pitch, etc.) is different than how you hear my voice, whether we are sharing the same space or connecting via “technology.” And, the sounds I make as words and sentences are already different than how those ideas felt in my head or body in the first place. I agree about the complexities and, perhaps, unfamiliar distortions that happen via various sorts of media and technologies. Your example here is a really nice one of how it’s more than just “zoom vs onsite” (and, especially, more than just the distance or the impact of video) that we need to consider. And, again, thinking of how to make soundscapes more inviting in online spaces (adding in some background noise or verbal cues) reminds us of the same need in onsite ones (e.g., so many folks with hearing aids or hearing loss find many gathered spaces confusing or exhausting because there are too many superfluous sounds).
Wolfgang Sigler: I wonder about the role of (so-called?) authenticity in this discussion.One feature of authenticity seems to be un-filtered expression of an inner reality. E.g. that is what Youtubers often do: They film their immediate reactions to something and at least create the impression of un-filtered reaction. Realilty TV shows do something similar. Scripted as these video clips might be, they do convey an idea that the authentic reaction is the immediate reaction, without the possibility to “photoshop” your inner reality into something else.Maybe, asynchronous contacts are seen and understood as not authentic in that sense. If I take half an hour time to answer a WhatsApp message, I have the possibility to consider implications of the written onto the relationship with the addressee, and usually I will retype parts. That takes away “authenticity” if it is construed in the way sketched above.Charles Guignon, On being authentic, was quite an eye opener for me in this context.
Debbie Creamer: This is where the binary is so problematic for me — at least in my context, people are much more likely to name synchronous as authentic and asynchronous as less/not, as you note here. But we can think of plenty of examples (as you share here) of synchronous experiences being clearly filtered and crafted, or of asynchronous ones being raw. In part, this happens as we shift the lens of what we mean by those two terms (does synchronous mean you and I are encountering each other at the same moment, or does it include the youtube videoer when I then watch that video later)? Adult learning theories, for example, often suggest that some learners (sometimes called “introverts” but also including folks with cognitive processing differences) can be more “themselves” when they have time to reflect and express themselves slowly (e.g., in a term paper), rather than dealing with the anxiety or external-processing demands of being called on in a class. And, as the earlier example of love letters might suggest, it’s possible to imagine someone being more their authentic self (whatever that is!!) when they do have the chance to retype parts, so that the words end up “just right”. I like adding the question of authenticity to this mix; it makes the questions more complicated I think, not less.
Florian Höhne: Yes: totally agree!
Florian Höhne: Yes: great point!
Florian Höhne: Reading this i associated the distinction of medium and image in our paper: If people use the binary of “in person” and “not in person”, this could be interpreted as them having gotten used to neglecting the medium that affords (your term) this specific “in person”-experience while their attention is still drawn to the medium that affords the online encounter, which makes it feel less real to that person.
Debbie Creamer: @florian, I really appreciate your language here of what we’ve “gotten used to neglecting”
Florian Höhne: Great point: totally agree. That is what we try to emphasice with Belting’s term “medium”, the material dimension.
Florian Höhne: Totally agree: great point!
Clifford Anderson: Great question! We always relate through interfaces, but perhaps we have inadvertently privileged the face, and eye contact, making it a synecdoche for temporal-spatial material encounter.
Kate Ott: audio is the most vulnerable for me as a user, but video is most vulnerable as a producer.
Kate Ott: How about thinking through affordances from an ability perspective as well? I wonder how written text versus audio and software that afford both creates opportunities across sensory abilities.
Kate Ott: I tell my students to imagine they are having a conversation with every author when reading. Think of them at your dinner table and engage! I think they need this embodied visual to dismantle power differentials.
Kate Ott: I don’t think I have overtly heard this point in the text yet that asynchronous is less than in terms of presence or “realness.” I hear colleagues make this assumption about courses all the time. Would we say the same thing about a snail mail letter or thank you note?
Debbie Creamer: Thanks for this observation @kate. In my context — and, particularly as we’re redesigning events and learning experiences — I hear this all the time, that the synchronous is better than the asynchronous, in part because it is more real. In fact, the new ATS accrediting standards, which are mostly flexible regarding modality, limit online/non-residential PhD programs to only be synchronous, because of an assumption that asynchronous ones would be far less real / rigorous / engaged / meaningful. But, in this case, the parallel to snail mail holds a bit, there’s some concern that asynchronous would be like correspondence education, by which I think they mean it would be transactional rather than engaged/real?
Kate Ott: Interesting that the wiki link is almost devoid of non-male references. danah boyd has written a lot related to digital tech and affordances often with social nuance.
Kate Ott: Very helpful transition. I was thinking of a spectrum after reading the last few sentences. This is reminding me a lot of gender constructions.
Kate Ott: This also makes me think of the classroom experience where everyone is seated around a table with their laptops and phones running at the same time.
Kate Ott: We say “on campus” as we consider any synchronous experience as “face to face”. I think people slip up and use in person a bunch to describe both. But, this still leaves the notion of asynchronous as not “in person”.
Selina Palm: I wonder if there are questions f trust that come up here - do we trust that the other person is ‘really here’ when we cannot verify it so clearly though body language - does it require different and new ways of trusting to create shared intimacy in virtual spaces
Kate Ott: I would trouble this. People can manipulate your attention or their attention/presence standing in front of you and I don’t think it is that difficult.
Selina Palm: i love this idea of paying attention in a certain way as ‘bringing your person’
Debbie Creamer: @Selina this reminds me of the work of Sallie McFague and others who talk about “attention epistemology” as a deeply embodied practice.
Catherine Ahearn: oh gosh, I’m just realizing what a problematic phrase this is!
Catherine Ahearn: My presence certainly shifts when prompted turn reading into an active (vs passive) activity!
Thomas Renkert: All of these are, also, diaconal question. People who are deaf/mute, who suffer from throat cancer, who are hard of hearing (hearing aids amplify and warp voices), who are hypersensitive have similar experiences.
Kate Ott: Agreed. I think this brings up lots of questions related to crip theology and theory as it often intersects with things like assemblage theory also interested in what defines “person” or human.
Thomas Renkert: Zizek argues in a similar fashion about the epistemic benefits of the category of “sex”. Sex creates a “minimal distance” instead of absolute intimacy, and this minimal distance enables us to actually perceive.
Thomas Renkert: What I hear in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida is that
Thomas Renkert: I believe you.
Thomas Renkert: Maybe we should experiment if something like https://www.wonder.me is making any difference at all? If so we could ask why that might be.
Kate Ott: I agree that wonder.me is an interesting case study. It raises issues for me about movement, autonomy, and privacy as social functions that demarcate certain definitions of in person.
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Thomas Renkert: I wouldn’t dismiss it completely, though. Martin Kusch and others have worked on the question why it is that large group of gobally distributed scientists are funded to meet “in person” every three months (think large groups of physicists), and the answers might have something to do with implicit, tacit knowledge that is hardly shareable via channels that are designed (affordances) only to what we think is worth sharing: information (knowledge-what). But we actually might have little insight into how we actually constitute knowledge (in a nonreductive sense).
Michael Hemenway: @Thomas, i really like your pushing us to consider tacit Knowledge seriously and what interfaces afford it. Have you encountered Michael Polanyi’s work on the tacit dimension?
Thomas Renkert: Very good!
Thomas Renkert: I believe we should focus on knowledge-how and the tacit dimensions of “working together”, be it online or onsite.
Thomas Renkert: I always wonder if it is really physical (as in spacetime) synchronicity which is the deciding factor. I know people who will watch the football game from last night the next day without looking at the results first. Do they refrain from cheering in front of the TV because it “has already happened”?
Debbie Creamer: @Thomas This is a great example, thank you! I’ve wondered sometimes whether it’s an interpreted synchronicity rather than a real-time one (with all the usual caveats of the complexity of those words). But I think there are still some differences. For example, if I’m watching the game the next day, I will cheer … but I won’t try to place a bet or gamble on the game, and I probably won’t wear my team’s shirt that day, and I might not even do whatever my superstitious practices are (e.g., with baseball, folks sometimes turn their hats inside out in the last innings if their team is behind, as if that might make a difference in the final score). I might also pause the playback of my game in order to attend to my family or take a phone call. But you’re right that there’s a very different experience of a/synchronicity here than if I’m, say, rewatching a tournament game from several years ago, or having the nightly sports roundup in the background when I already know the outcome.
Michael Hemenway: Let’s try to talk more about this term today @thomas!
Thomas Renkert: I ask myself from time to time whether “enactive” instead of “embodied” would be a more helpful term..
Thomas Renkert: Anybody with friends, who, instead of having one phone call, rather send six voice messages, can attest to that.
Catherine Ahearn: ++
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Thomas Renkert: I really like this because it inverts the absence-presence debate. Is our real fear not that “the world” might be less present, but we ourselves? Is it - in the semantics of my own paper - due to the simultaneity of all function that we tend to view ourselves more as brains in fishtanks than as “whole persons” in front of a display?
Thomas Renkert: Yes, David Foster Wallace uses a similar strategy in some of his texts. But the textual 4th wall is a tricky one to break. If we all used this device, would it still “work” or would it become “dull”?
Catherine Ahearn: To me, Q’s of the textual 4th wall are intertwined with ones of intended audience. These invitation spaces, for instance, imply an active, current reader/participant and their effect will change for someone reading this, say, in a year when conversation here has slowed or stopped. The device becomes impactful out of this sense of readership, not because it’s inherently exciting or dull. I would flip your question a bit in answering and say if we all used this device it wouldn’t work because it’s not the right device for all [intended] audiences + texts. Improperly deployed, it becomes annoying!
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Thomas Renkert: This makes me wish I didn’t have to cut my paragraph on recursion and self-referentiality… 😅
Hanna Reichel: Can I comment HOW AWESOME I find the way you are making use of this very medium here to not only involve the reader in the conversation but actually performatively make your points?
Thomas Renkert: +1
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Frederike van Oorschot: Audio - and I have no idea, why..
Frederike van Oorschot: Can we think about the virtual as a additional layer of reality, as an augmentation? This is how I feel while reading a good book or an interesting paper.
Debbie Creamer: @frederike Maybe a layer that’s added and some that are lost? I’m still taken by Michael and Br. Wolfgang’s comments about shared experiences of smell (and, of beer!). I don’t want to lean too much into the “lost” side, since I think we lose less than what folks commonly assume (or, the loss is due to design or habit rather than media or space/time), but I also keep wanting to explore how the experiences/encounters are not “same”.
Frederike van Oorschot: yes!
Frederike van Oorschot: For me, this questions only makes sense in a relational understanding of “in-person”, metioned above.
Kate Ott: We might also argue that she is more “in person” rather than less as the various people and spaces that form her relational personhood are part of the class experience in a way that traveling to a school building cuts them off from her interaction and their possible presence (known or unknown) in the room that morning for class.
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Frederike van Oorschot: Would you say, a medium is an interface in a very basic sens? We tried the notion of a “bridge” in our paper and I wonder whether the notion of the interface might possibly deepen it. https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/ds8wvl67/release/3#na5lvulq4kz
Frederike van Oorschot: I still like this notion - it was convincing in your understading of Scripture, Michael, and intrigues me here!
Frederike van Oorschot: yes!
Florian Höhne: +1
Frederike van Oorschot: It seems, you might switch the understanding of time from a ontological to a relational perspective. A/synchronity thereby becomes a way of relating to one another - or?
Florian Höhne: Taking up Frederike’s point and going further: What is the notion of time implied in the messy binary of a/synchronicity and what is the notion of time in your kaleidoscope (great metaphor btw ;))? Ist “time” and “chronos” the same?
Frederike van Oorschot: I might loose the point here: Would you say, “a/synchronous” is kind of a term of relation - describing the way one experiences the relation to one another and therefore constitutiveli linked to a community/other? Or does it also describe experiences of ones own? Or am I on the wrong track?
Debbie Creamer: Hmm, good question. In my context (my workplace, and academic conferences more generally), my experience is that folks often talk about the zoom/synchronous part as the “meeting” and the asynchronous part as “before-the-meeting” or “after-the-meeting” regardless of whether that work is done alone (e.g., reading papers) or collaboratively (e.g., commenting on papers, having discussions like these in the margins). I’ve caught myself in other settings describing asynchronous as “on your own” or “at your own pace,” even though it’s not necessarily either of those things (e.g., these papers had a deadline). This is where I would default back to the kaleidoscope — we often talk about either a binary (it’s either synchronous or asynchronous) or a continuum (it’s either more or less synchronous or engaged) when I think instead it’s a whole constellation of factors which can exhibit more or less of certain characteristics or experiences.
Frederike van Oorschot: very helpful!
Thomas Renkert: +1
Frederike van Oorschot: I would add space here, as hanna suggested above
Frederike van Oorschot: I would alos love to think ybout the relation of ”person” and “body” - maybe looking back on the discussions in 2019 at the last workshop. Why do we relate these terms so easily? https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/uv2c6nd4/release/6
Michael Hemenway: @frederike, this is similar to the image/medium pairing, yes?
Frederike van Oorschot: It is virtual as any reading is a partly virtual experience for me - it takes me “to another place” while sitting at my desk feeling the sun on my legs and looking on the Black Forest outside. So its definitely “in-person”!
Frederike van Oorschot: Does our double understanding of virtual make sense to you at this point, Debbie and Michael? https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/ds8wvl67/release/3#neeljtorhc7
Frederike van Oorschot: It changes - you start a discussion with me and - even without any co-presence or synchronicity - I feel adressed by and in conversation with you. Regarding digital worship I stated once, that missing nearness in time and/or space can be filled (bridged?) by interaction and participation in order to build a community. This definitely works here!
Frederike van Oorschot: Same problem of terminology here as mentioned in the discussion of our paper. It’s interesting how deep even our terminological struggles are trying to cover what the difference is regarding digital mediatization. I see three main areas in expressed in often used terms: space (as hanna mentions), time (as you say) and “body/physical” (as I try to explore relating to the term “person” in the discussion on our text). Would you add something?
Frederike van Oorschot: See here the discussion on our paper on “person” https://cursor.pubpub.org/pub/ds8wvl67/release/3#na5lvulq4kz
Hanna Reichel: The audio in some way feels more intimate - I have a fuller reminder of Michael’s character and even his physical presence than from merely reading his text - but on the other hand it also feels oddly LESS personal to me on my end, since I have less opportunity to shape the encounter. In a text I can adjust the speed at which I am reading, skip over parts, linger over others, return to a key passage and ponder it, which affords me much more personal engagement on my end, whereas the voice might just run by me, relentlessly pursuing its own thought at its own speed, mindless of where I am, even losing me as I still ponder something that was said a minute ago…
Frederike van Oorschot: I had the same feelings as Hanna. And as I know Michael, but never met Debbie before, this definitely made a difference to me.
Hanna Reichel: Is it a closer/more explicit relationship to time, or is the time simply more homogenous and linear (“straight”!) in audio than textual encounters? I wonder whether the work done on different temporalities could also shed more light on the work our “synchronous”/”asychronous” binary is doing, what normativities it imposes, and what limitations it veils?
Frederike van Oorschot: Interesting question!
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Hanna Reichel: I am interested in your use of design language here (I have recently dappled in understanding theology as “conceptual design”, working up affordances etc.) - is it intentional? What is your insight behind it?
Hanna Reichel: “Face to face” in a way that there is much less escape from “the other” encountering me here than in a shared physical environment which also affords plenty of distraction.
Frederike van Oorschot: There is much more “face” in Zoom than in a conference room…
Hanna Reichel: I resonate with this a lot. Why is it that we also need to categorize things in binary relationships, which indeed is not just saying that they are opposites, but that one is the absence, deprivation, and negation of the other and to be considered “worth less”?Coming to an understanding of difference beyond that is worth much. Concretely, my students tell me this, and it is true in my own life as well: Many of the relationships I mostly engage with “online”/”virtually” are much more personal and meaningful for me than many of the relationships that take place in shared physical space (and time).
Frederike van Oorschot: I can totally agree. The focus chosen media allow - e.g. the necessity to talk on phone while one can ignore a person standing next to you - emphasizes different aspects of relations and forms them differently, but not at all in a binary or contradicting way!
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Hanna Reichel: The shift between your two perspectives is really quite interesting in this text. The experience of what work the “in-person” is doing changes a lot depending on your two different experiences of the whole situation.
Debbie Creamer: @Hanna Michael keeps reminding me that the in-person is local :)
Hanna Reichel: ! this!
Hanna Reichel: I don’t think that I have
Frederike van Oorschot: Me neither
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Hanna Reichel: is the online-onsite binary you introduce here coextensive with the virtual-inperson one you introduced (and challenged) earlier? does it afford more clarity? or is reality equally more messy than this one as well?
Florian Höhne: +1
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Hanna Reichel: woa how very psychodelic of you
Hanna Reichel: Agreed! Btw an interesting third term is “face to face” - people are using it all the time to mean the physical copresence, when in fact zoom/webex “virtual” meetings afford much more actual “face” to “face” interaction than most “in-person” settings…
Frederike van Oorschot: I agree - with you hypothese and Hannas comment on “face to face”
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Hanna Reichel: That might actually be a better criterion than the one I spontaneously formulated above. If I sit waiting for another’s response as they are formulating it, and they sit waiting for mine, then the conversation takes place “live” and thus in some way synchronously, even as it may be temporally distended (we may sit waiting for someone’s response letters longer than we do in a chat). But then it would not depend on the medium as much as on the personal engagement. And a communication may appear asynchronous to one side but may be experienced as synchronous to the other.In any case, then, it seems that a technology which actively prompts that you “should be waiting” as the other person is “right now” formulating their response then seems to afford synchronicity in the sense of inviting and facilitating this kind of waiting engagement
Frederike van Oorschot: Interesting point, Hanna! This as well applies to others forms of communication: If I sit in a conference not expecting to be adressed or not interested in the discussion at all, for me the discussion might not be “live” in the same sense than it would be if I took part of it.
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Hanna Reichel: For me, right now, it seems most like a personal and synchronous interaction between Debbie, Michael, and Amy, which I witness in a kind of second-order observation asynchronously.
Frederike van Oorschot: I agree with Hanna
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Hanna Reichel: I wonder what theological notions of “personhood” (e.g. with regard to God!) might contribute to this discussion - maybe that angle would help to decenter the assumed necessity of temporal and spatial proximity for something to be experienced as “personal”?
Frederike van Oorschot: This point might also be interesting regarding the focus on “body” as physical materiality. Maybe we can think about that relating it to our thoughts on the (re)presentation of the Body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? Or is this far off your interests - as my head is stucked in the debates on sacramentality and the digital? ;)
Hanna Reichel: what I also find really interesting is the shift to a temporal lens (a/synchronous) to describe an initially spatially distanced experience of interaction (“socially distanced” and thus communicating “virtually” rather than in physical co-presence)
Michael Hemenway: Yes! Our relationship to time in this is so interesting. Made me go back to Bergson on time and duration. Now my head is swimming/drowning :).
Hanna Reichel: I love how you are inviting us into the conversation - I love the thinking-together of that in the first place, but even more how it directs the attention at the complexity of presence, increasing it even more with the “asynchronous” reader experience and engagement “after” your written text…