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The Portuguese version of this paper can be found in
Santaella, Lucia (2004). Navegar no ciberespaço. O perfil cognitivo do leitor imersivo. São Paulo: Paulus.
INTERACTIVITY IN THE LIGHT OF DIALOGISM
Lucia Santaella Braga
Communication has entered a new era. This is the consensus among scholars who deal with the new media. The technological advances associated with information society have resulted in the transformation of all media to digital transmission. Sound, pictures, and verbal texts are all converted into the same computer readable formats. The analog code of the messages is broken up into strings of ones and zeros that carry information in encoded form into the computer. More and more, communication is being created and distributed in this form in which the same basic technologies are used to transmit all modes of communication (Straubhaar and LaRose 1997: 20, 27). One of the main characteristics of this technology, which is enhanced by the web informational configuration, is to allow communications media to target audiences and get fast feedback. For this reason, interactivity has become one of the central topics of this digital era.
In the literature on the issues of information society, cyberculture, and the new media, a good number of studies is dedicated to interactivity. However, as far as I know, none of them has dealt with the relation of interactivity with the semiotic concept of dialogism. The aim of this article is to consider this relation and to propose that the concept of dialogism might shed new light on the comprehension of interactivity.
Before being renamed as ‘interactivity’ in the context of teleinformatics, the notion of interaction was born in the field of physics. From there it was adopted in sociology and then in psychology.
In communication studies, according to Machado (1997), the idea of interactivity was already present in Bertold Brecht in the beginnings of the 1930’s. Speaking about the potential of the radio, Brecht referred to the democratic insertion of the communication media with the direct participation of the citizens. In the 1970’s, Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1979) defended the possibility of overcoming the one-way communication media (radio, newspaper, and television) by a system of interchanges, of conversation, and feedback. By the same time, Raymond Williams (1979) denounced the merely reactive nature of technologies that were sold as interactive.
Kretz (1985, in Silva 2000: 85) says that the term ‘interactivity’ appeared in France at the end of the 1970’s in the middle of discussions that tried to differentiate, in the realm of telematics, the interactive from the diffusion services. Rabaté and Lauraire (1985, in Silva 2000: 86) made a report of the uses of the word in France, which led them to identify three sources of the notion of interactivity derives: (a) the analysis of the relation between human users and informatics applications of a conversational character; (b) the notion of interface; (c) the idea of bidirectionality in two-way communication in interindividual or intergroup form.
From the 1980’s on, the word ‘interactivity’ has become more and more wide-spread and its usage began to verge on triviality. Machado (1997: 250) concluded that the term was being used in the most confusing and inconvenient ways. Its semantic field was as broad as to absorb a field from movie theaters with moving chairs to television soap operas whose end could be chosen by the spectators via telephone calls. In the digital media environment, the use of the term has become a commonplace. In a context in which the ‘myth of interactivity’ is the topic, Manovich (2001: 55) says that he avoids using the word ‘interactive’ without qualifying it because he finds the concept to be too broad to be truly useful. For Straubhaar and LaRose (1997: 19), the word has acquired a meaning that applies to any situation in which the content of a media system is selectable or customizable by the user. ‘That would mean, for example, that Web pages that let the users assemble their own version of the daily newspaper from a vast library of digital information could be called interactive. [...] However, this broad use of the word would mean that books with indexes, televisions with remote controls, and mechanical candy machines are interactive – the user can select the content’. Given such an unlimited semantic proliferation, it is necessary to recover a more restricted and significant notion of ‘interactivity.
The word ‘interactivity’ is in the semantic neighborhood of the words action, agency, correlation, and cooperation from which it borrows its meanings. In connection with action, it acquires the sense of operation, work, and evolution. From its connection with agency comes the sense of interwork. In the vicinity of correlation, it gains the sense of mutual influence, and with the term cooperation it acquires the meanings of contribution, coagency, synergy, and symbiosis.
Although, in fact, all these meanings circulate in the semantic field of interactivity, and it is relevant to bear all of them in mind, a basic definition of interactivity asserts that it is a process through which two or more things produce a mutual effect when working together. According to a less generic and even more simplified definition, interaction is the activity of talking to other people and the process of understanding them. In this latter definition, the insertion of interactivity in a communicative process is explicit. It is in dialogue and conversation that it finds its most privileged form of manifestation. Straubhaar and LaRose specify:
Interactivity is more meaningful when applied, somewhat more narrowly, to systems wherein feedback from the receiver is used by the source – whether human or computer – to continually modify the message as it is being delivered to the receiver. [...] In a videogame [for example], the game gets harder as you score more points, there is no real feedback to the source, but we can still consider it ‘interactive’ because the player is getting, in effect, real-time responses from the person who created the software for the game. (Straubhaar and LaRose 1997: 19)
For many scholars the above threshold is too low. According to Williams (1979), e. g, videogames are merely reactive. Although they demand responses from the player, these responses are always within the parameters which are the rules of the game established by the variables of the program. A definition that determines a high threshold for interactivity comes from Silva (2000: 105): ‘A product, a communication process, an equipment, a work of art are, in fact, interactive when they are impregnated with a conception that includes complexity, multiplicity, non-linearity, bidirectionality, potentiality, permutation (combination), unpredictability, etc., allowing the user–interlocutor the freedom to participate, to intervene, to create’.
Within the two extremes postulated by Williams (1979), namely, the one of the reactive technologies and the one of interactive technologies renamed by Teixeira Primo (2000) as reactive interaction and mutual interaction, different degrees of interactivity have been established by some authors who have already been discussed by Silva (2000: 88-93).
Kretz (1985: 98ff.) distinguishes six degrees of interactivity: (a) interactivity zero, in novels, records, cassettes which are linearly followed, from beginning to end; (b) linear interactivity, when the novels, records, and cassettes are manipulated forward and backward, (c) branching interactivity, when the selection is made through choices in a menu, such as in newspapers and magazines, (d) linguistic interactivity, whose access depends on key words, forms, etc., (e) creative interactivity which allows the user to compose a message by correspondence, and (f) continuous command interactivity, which allows modification and displacement of acoustic and visual objects through the user’s manipulation, as in videogames.
Holtz-Bonneau (1985: 133-141) distinguished three modalities of interactivity: (a) selective, based on the selection of contents, such as touching the keys of a videocassette to advance the images, (b) content based, which offers the user the occasion to simulate modifications in the content of the images or even to create images, and (c) hybrid interactions, when access is facilitated by checking the videotext or the CD-Rom connected to the computer.
Also in the mid 1980’s, Rabaté and Lauraire (ibid.) have studied the categories of interactivity in the light of models of discourse treated as ideologies. The results of this study comprise two main forms of interactivity:
(a) the empirical form, which includes human capabilities and which is subdivided into: (a1) the essentialist sense, according to which interactivity is almost co-extensive with communication, (a2) the instrumental sense, in which interactivity is conversational, (a3) the action sense, which is defined by the opposite pair of activity and passivity, and (a4) a sense linked to the imaginary, according to which the relation man and machine is symbiotic.
(b) the speculative form, whose central notion is in social interaction and which is subdivided into: (b1) interactivity as well succeeded interpersonal communication, (b2) interactivity as social regulation, (b3) interactivity as inter-professional regulation, (b4) social interactivity, and (b5) public interactivity.
The discussions about interactivity boiled in France in the mid-1980’s due to the success of the French videotext Minitel, which was an inaugural system of interactivity in the man-machine relation preceding the advent of the ‘network society’ (Castells 2000) of which interactivity has become one the pivots.
Outside the French context, Thompson (1995: 81-118) published a study of the types of interactivity focusing on the ways in which the media development affects the traditional patterns of social interaction. Thompson distinguished three types of interaction: (a) face-to-face interaction; (b) mediated interaction, and (c) mediated quasi-interaction.
(a) Face-to-face interaction is defined by the context of co-presence, the sharing of a common spatial-temporal reference system, a multiplicity of symbolic cues, the orientation toward specific others, and its dialogical character.
(b) Mediated interaction involves the use of technical media (paper, electrical wires, electromagnetic waves, etc.) and takes place through letter writing, telephone conversations, and so on, presents the following features: separation of contexts, availability through space and time, narrowing of the range of symbolic cues, orientation toward specific others and a dialogical character.
(c) Mediated quasi-interaction refers to the types of social relations established by the media, such as books, newspapers, radio, and television. Its features are: separation of contexts, availability in time and space, narrowing of the range of symbolic cues, orientation toward an indefinite range of potential recipients, and monological character.
Actually, this classification was set up by Thompson only to introduce and discuss the third type of interaction, in which the level of interaction is really weakest. The rest of his study is dedicated to the social organizations created by this form of quasi-interaction, especially in television.
Although published in 1995, in a period when the information nets were already exploding, Thompson’s study does not yet deal with the types of interactivity emerging in the net at the time. He limited himself to recognizing that new forms of interaction might be created with the development of new communication technologies which could allow for a greater degree of input from the recipients.
More recently, these new forms of interactivity have been discussed by Manovich (2001: 38-40). The author speaks of menu based branching interactivity to refer to programs in which ‘all the possible objects the user can visit form a branching tree structure. When the user reaches a particular object, the program presents her with choices and allows her to choose among them. Depending on the value chosen, the user advances along a particular branch of the tree. In this case the information used by a program is the output of the user’s cognitive process.’
Manovich (ibid.: 40) considers this form of interactivity as the simplest type. More complex types are possible. They are implemented by a variety of approaches, such as procedural and object-oriented computer programming, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and neural networks. In these cases, ‘both the elements and the structure of the whole object are either modified or generated on the fly in response to the user’s interaction with a program’. The author calls this type open interactivity in contrast to the closed interactivity of the fixed elements in a fixed branching structure. Since the focus of the present article is on interactive communication, it is necessary to discuss interactivity in the communication context.
Since the first studies in communication and information theory, especially by Shannon and Weaver (1949), communication processes have been considered as processes of message transmission involving several elements. The most indispensable ones are: a source and a sender as the points of departure of the message, a code responsible for the organization and the potential for understanding or sharing of the message, and a receiver that the message aims to affect or exert an influence on. This communication model has become widely adopted, but it has also been criticized for its linearity. Other models have appeared trying to question the superiority of the sender and to emphasize the dynamics of the process (see Santaella 2001: 53-63). One of them is the pragmatic model by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) which conceived of human interaction as an open system in the light of systems theory.
An important concept concerning interactivity that appeared in these models has been the one of negotiation. In all communication processes, negotiation takes place as a way of drawing attention to the necessary interchange between sender and receiver.
Negotiation is a process of communication for the resolution of differences. The resolutions in these processes of negotiation gradually define the relation. [...] The ‘offers’ that are placed in the negotiation do not in themselves define the relation. This definition comes from the quality of synchronicity and reciprocity in the interaction. Finally, it is not often that these processes of negotiation result in a greater approximation. They involve cooperation and competition; communion, diversity and individualism; integration and disintegration. Furthermore, one can not say that more enduring and more compromising relations do reach a final stage of development, since they are always in process of negotiation and renegotiation. (Teixeira Primo 2000: 85)
Vygotsky, the cognitivist, and Jakobson, the creator of the linguistic functional model, have insisted on the possibility of negotiation in face-to-face dialogues with the goal of reducing noise, which is part of any communication process. The negotiation of meanings in every type of communication is essential for the comprehension of the intended message (Ledgerwood 1999).
Each process of communication develops its own form of negotiation. In written language, for instance, the sender has an intuition of the reader and tries repeatedly to clarify the message in a kind of virtual dialogue with an imaginary reader. The study of the types of negotiation in the various forms of communication is relevant to the understanding of the processes of negotiation taking place in the computational interfaces nowadays.
Interactive communication presupposes the necessary interchange and mutual influence between the sender and the receiver in the production of the messages that are transmitted. This means that messages are produced in an intermingled domain in which sender and receiver change their roles permanently.
According to this definition, there are at least four types of interactive communication: (a) face-to-face interaction, (b) epistolary communication, (c) telephone communication, and (d) communication mediated by computer.
(a) Conversation, the live dialogue, has always been considered the most perfect form of interactive communication. When people talk to each other, they are really involved in two-way communication. Not only do the speakers and hearers take turns, but they also modify their interaction on the basis of their preceding exchanges. According to Thompson’s description (1995: 82-83), given their co-presence in face-to-face interaction, the can use deictic expressions (‘here’, ‘now’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.).
Conversations have been the object of many studies by linguists and discourse analysts, whose interest is mainly in the verbal components of communication. However, the fundamental semiotic aspects involved in conversation have received less attention: the posture of the body, its tension or distension, facial movements and the numberless meanings that they transmit, the attitude of interest or ennui, hurry or relaxation of the one who speaks, the pauses, interruptions and intromissions, the smiles, half words, interjections, all these features compose a complex set of signals and signs, without which oral interactivity would not be possible. Thompson (1995) has called these semiotic components symbolic cues, emphasizing the role of ambiguity reduction and communication refinement played by them.
(b) Despite its interactive nature as well, the epistolary form suffers from the limits of the writing language and from the stretching of time and space between emission and reception. In effect, the epistolary communication temporality may be so slow to the point of withdrawing its interactive potentiality. When people exchange letters, they do not share the same system of spatial-temporal references. That is why, this type of interaction demands the inclusion of contextual data to compensate for the lack of deictic expressions and of the semiotic components that are proper of oral language.
(c) Among all the modern communication media, previous to the advent of the telecommunication nets, the only interactive medium was the telephone. However, the telephone is a semiotically univalent medium, that is, it makes use of a single emission system, the voice. In McLuhan’s terminology, the telephone is a hot medium, since it excludes any possibility of coexistence of the various human senses. It is centralized only in one of them. Hence, all the communication process is reduced to the voice and to the sense of hearing.
(d) Interactive multimedia has been the designation of computer programs since they appeared some decades ago. With the advent of the web which is turning more and more interactive, this designation has became so wide-spread as to be almost omnipresent. In fact, the types of interaction in the communication mediated by the computer, especially in cyberspace, are manifold, and they present a variety of applications.
According to Straubhaar and LaRose (1997: 19), digital technology is able to attain levels of two-way interactivity similar to the ones taking place in conversation. The authors take the examples of computer games that get harder as the players score more points and of transactional systems such as home banking. In both cases, the content of the information exchange between the user and the game or the bank is continually modified according to the user’s response. The highest level of interactivity meets the so called Turing test. ‘To pass this test, an interactive system must convince users that they are interacting with a human being rather than a machine’.
The man-machine interfaces, especially in the informational configurations through the web, have brought deep changes in the traditional notions of interactivity. According to Marchand (1987, in Silva 2000: 114), the emergence of this modality of communication interactivity has provoked fundamental transformations in the classic scheme of communication. Since the status of the receptor changes with participation-intervention, the nature of the message changes as much as the role of the sender also changes. As Marchand (ibid.: 9) observes, the sender
does not emit in a sense as it is habitually understood. The sender does not propose a closed message any longer. On the contrary, he offers a range of possibilities at one and the same level, assigning them the same value and status. The receiver is not in the classical position of a receptor. The message only acquires its meaning under his or her intervention. To a certain extent, the receiver becomes a co-creator. In sum, the message can now be recomposed, reorganized. Permanently modified under the impact both of the receptor’s interventions and the system’s demands, the message loses its status of an ‘emitted’ message. Hence, it seems that the classical scheme of communication, which was based on the one-way link between sender-message-receiver is badly placed in a situation of computer interactivity. (Marchand 1987, in Silva 2000: 114)
In this new context, the sender does not emit a message any longer but constructs a system with navigation routes and links. The message becomes an interactive program defined by the way it is checked, so that it is modified to the degree to which it responds to the demands of the user manipulating the program. The manipulations are processed by means of an interactive screen or interface which is the locus and medium for dialogue. With material instruments (screen, mouse, key-board) and immaterial means (command languages) the receiver is transformed into an user organizing the navigation as he or she wishes in a field of possibilities whose proportions are large enough to give the impression of infinity. Furthermore, the interactive programs offer the navigator the possibility of changing identity and role for a multiplicity of points of view. Programs are forms of organizing thoughts, and they lead the user to incorporate identities generated in cyberspace.
There is not only interpersonal interactivity mediated by the machine, but also transindividual interactivity, in which the user as a person is multiplied in an infinite web of links and passages through virtual sites and situations. Once within them, sender and receiver lose their definite limits and acquire a plural, universal, and global face. In any case, interaction via computer has a kind of structure that forces its users to deconstruct many of the cultural tools that are on the basis of all the more conventional interactive systems (Merino 1999).
The simplest type of interaction mediated by computer can be found in finite programs, such as the ones that are embodied in educational CD-ROMs. In this case, the program is neither capable of giving an infinite response to the human input, nor is it capable of an infinite adaptability to respond to this input. On the contrary, the aim of these programs is to take their users through determined paths which are accomplished when certain predetermined goals are attained. No matter how multifaceted the possibilities of these programs may be, they always remain within the limits established by the program.
At a level of higher complexity, the internet brings new forms of multivariability to human-machine interaction. The transition from CD-Rom to internet can be found, for instance, in some of Laurie Anderson’s productions, when she adds an internet site to interact with her CD-Rom. This brings new modules of interactive games to her CD-Rom.
Hybrids of this kind, however, cannot be compared to the internet interactivity potential. The systems used in internet are manifold, and they exhibit different technological capacities for synchronic (as is the case of chats) and asynchronic interaction (e-mail, forums etc.). Furthermore, the proliferation of sites and portals in the Web has given origin to the informatics interactivity producing the hypermediatic text in which interrelated layers of data allow the generation of information from random choices.
In this case, it is the cybernaut’s interactivity that creates the hypertext, in the links, nodes, and multilinear networks generated from the choices of reading. The results are never predictable since they can only appear at the moment of interaction with the machine. Hence, Halasz and Schwartz (1994, in Manovich 2001: 40-41) conclude that the hypermedia systems ‘provide their users with the ability to create, manipulate and/or examine a network of information containing a network of information containing nodes interconnected by relational links’.
What Web interactivity allows today is: to access remote information in the nonlinear paths of hypertext and hypermedia environments; to send messages available without hierarchical values; to perform collaborative actions in the Web; to experiment telepresence; to visualize distant places; to act in remote spaces; to coexist in virtual and real spaces; to circulate in intelligent environments by means of a system of agents; to interact in environments of self-organizing systems simulating life; to belong to virtual communities in MUDS and MOOS by interaction and in this latter, through immersion, to belong to the virtual environments of multiple users (Domingues 2002: 111-112).
In view of these developments, Plaza (2001: 36) concludes that ‘interactivity is not only a technical and functional commodity; it implies that the user plunges into a physical, psychological and sensitive practice of transformation’. The principles of interactivity in the Web in processes demanding reciprocity, collaboration and sharing are mutability, ephemerity, and becoming. Cyberspace interactivity would not be possible without the user’s semiotic competence to deal with the computational interfaces. This competence implies watchfulness, receptivity, choice, collaboration, control, displacement, reordering in states of unpredictability, chance, disorder, and adaptability. These are, among other things, the conditions required from those that create an interactive system as well as from those who have the experience of interacting with it.
More and more interactive technologies are being created with ever increasing complexity. As Domingues (2002: 84) points out, the expression ‘second interactivity’ is now in use with reference to machines capable of responding like living beings Such machines are systems endowed with decision procedures elaborated by models of cognitive science. They simulate in the forms of Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Life processes of which until now only the human mind was thought to be capable of.
Such simulations operate in a complex way in environments that evolve with their own responses. Among the most advanced examples are neural networks and their layers of perceptrons, which simulate synaptic connections and which can be trained to learn. […] In this way, artificial systems are being created endowed with fitness, with the full capacity of generating and dominating unpredictable situations. The results are artificial processes of problem solving by means of random exchange, data selection, information crossing and self-organiziation. (Domingues 2002: 84)
When situations of interactivity come to this point of complexity, they demand more precise and suitable concepts for their understanding. As far as I can see, the semiotic concept of dialogism, not only the Bakhtinian concept but also the Peircean concept can bring an important contribution in this context. I will argue in the following that dialogism is at the heart of computer based interactive processes and that these processes function as real embodiments of the concept of dialogism. The nature of cyberspace interactivity can be elucidated both in the light of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia and in the light of Peirce’s theory of the dialogical and social nature of the sign. With the expansion of cyberspace interactivity, the concept of dialogism has to be extended to the concept of heterologism, which leads the collective potential of the sign to its most complete realization.
Against the two prevailing schools in the study of language in the early twentieth century, the abstract objectivist and the idealist subjectivist, Bakhtin developed what Holquist called ‘a highly distinctive concept of language’:
The conception has as its enabling a priori an almost Manichean sense of opposition and struggle at the heart of existence, a ceaseless battle between centrifugal forces that seek to keep things apart and centripetal forces that strive to make things cohere. This Zoroastrian clash is present in culture as well as nature, and in the specificity of individual consciousness; it is at work in the even greater particularity of individual utterances. The most complete and complex reflection of these forces is found in human language. (Holquist 1982: xviii; see also Morson and Emerson 1990)
However, taking dialogue, or living speech, as the principal locus of heteroglossia, the site of diversity and confrontation, indeed, the site of ideological contestation of the ‘struggle over the sign’ (Gardiner 1992: 7), Bakhtin did not, , understand this dialogue as the confrontation of two sovereign egos outside of time and history. It is not our ego which gives meaning to language, but language which gives meaning to human beings, and this meaning can only emerge in the interaction of voices, in the shifts and intersections between a speaker and a listener. Meaning is not stored up in individual consciousness, like in stable and petrified repositories, but in the relationship, in the interstices between speakers and listeners, who are only defined through the mutual exchanges and by the discourse which they choose from the discourses available. Meaning is hence language in movement, dialogue.
Dialogism does not mean a mere exchange between two egos inhabited by language. Speech is not the private property of an ego, but the continuous transformation of question into answer and vice versa, the creative propulsion of the speaker who, to understand the utterances of the other, has to translate them into other utterances: ‘his-own-but-others’ (Bakhtin 1982), hence the importance of the context for the intelligibility of dialogism. Context here should be understood not as a circumstantial environment surrounding the speakers in an immediate sense, but as an aspect of time: ‘brief-time’, the here-and-now, the situation; and ‘universal time’, the time of language, the past and future of the possible meanings of language – an endless spiral movement in which private utterances lose their privacy in order be enriched with collective meanings. In reality, ‘sense is favored by what Bakhtin calls distance, ‘outsideness’. This is specially true when sense does not wholly subsist in its own context, in its own present time, but also in relation to a given past time, a tradition where it belongs to a far wider sphere than that referred to by the interpretative abilities of immediate interlocutors and their contemporaries’ (Ponzio 1993: 93).
Following Plato, Peirce describes thinking as a dialogical process:
Thinking always proceeds in the form of a dialogue – a dialogue between different phases of the ego [...] All thinking is dialogic in form. Your self of one instant appeals to your deeper self for his assent so that, being dialogical, it is essentially composed of signs, as its matter, in the sense in which a game of chess has the chessmen for its matter.[...] All thinking is conducted in signs that are mainly of the same general structure as words; those which are not so, being of the nature of those signs of which we have need now and then in our converse with one another to eke out the defects of words, or symbols. (CP 4.6 and CP 6.338)
Peirce adds that ‘it is not merely a fact of human Psychology, but a necessity of Logic, that every logical evolution of thought should be dialogic’ (CP 4.551). Now, if every thought is dialogic and consequently conducted in signs, the starting point for the understanding of dialogism in Peirce is evidently the notion of semiosis, the action of the sign, or better, the notion of the sign as process.
Peirce defines the sign as ‘anything which on the one hand is so determined by an Object and on the other hand so determines an idea in a person’s mind, that this latter determination, which I term the Interpretant of the sign, is thereby mediately determined by that Object’ (CP 8.343).The action of a sign is to determine an interpretant, to grow in another sign.
Peirce regarded semiosis as the process by which reality is revealed. The sign–object–interpretant relation of his particular theory is intended to describe the form of this process. Reality (the object) becomes manifest through the mediation of signs, and these signs are apprehended or responded to (the interpretant). The object is accessible only through the mediation of the sign. (Scott 1983: 159)
Peirce’s model of knowledge is triadic. In this model, the sign is the mediating term, the means for the development of knowledge. Since all thought exists in the form of signs, each element of knowledge is mediated and arises through representations. For this very reason there is no thought which is not dialogical par excellence. The mere presence of a sign calls forth the presence of another. ‘From the proposition that every thought is a sign, it follows that every thought must address itself to some other, must determine some other, since that is the essence of the sign’ (CP 5.253).
Hence, the action of the sign is not merely individual, but social. Each particular act of understanding is a response to a sign through another sign. ‘A person is not absolutely an individual. His thoughts are what he is “saying to himself”, that is, is saying to that other self that is just coming into life in the flow of time’ (CP 5.421).
Peirce’s dialogism implies that the sign be understood as a process, a continuous flow. This is the reason why language is not in us. We are in the movement of language, in its past, present and becoming. As we are in language, our individual ego is necessarily vague, with no definite contour. What gives unity to the individual is the sign which, in its turn, is social by nature.
Despite the great differences between Bakhtin and Peirce, differences that I am not going to discuss here (see Santaella 1986), for both, language is social above all (see Danow 1991: 23). According to Bakhtin (1982: 389), no individual act of meaning production ‘can be fitted into a single consciousness (self-contained and all of a piece); any response generates a new question. Question and answer presuppose reciprocal extraposition […]. The alien words, assimilated (‘his-own-but-others’) and eternally living, when creatively renewed in new contexts, are opposed to mummified words.’
For Peirce, semiosis or the action of the sign is essentially social. An interpretative act, here and now of a sign is nothing but a special case of the interpretant since by nature the latter is more social, general, and objective than a particular and exclusive act of one single interpretant. ‘Peirce did not view the individual as a discrete, autonomous entity. [...] What he described was a social web stretching continuously from the past and connecting with individuals in the present’ (Tarr 1981: 242).
The situation of two persons entertaining a conversation, one in the presence of the other, has always been taken as the most perfect form of interactivity. That is why it is taken as a model for any discussion about interactivity. In fact, the negotiations of a live and volatile dialogue taking place in this situation seem to constitute the most legitimate example of a communicative intercourse. However, the presence of two subjectivities which is so evident in oral dialogue pushes into the background the fact that, without the mediation of language, the interchange between the two subjectivities would not be possible.
In the diverse forms of interactivity in cyberspace, by contrast, the flows of signs, the language games, that which, in the common jargon, is called information flows, come to the foreground. When subjectivities are engaged in these games, it becomes explicit that the private control of language which is performed in face-to-face communication is only an illusion. Interactivity in cyberspace turns evident the real dialogical character of language. This can not be confused, as it is commonly thought, with two egos that face each other to negotiate meanings settled in their minds. For both, Bakhtin and Peirce, speech is not the property of an ego inhabited by language. This latter is a constant flow which the communication networks of cyberspace turn even more intense.
It became a commonplace among theoreticians of cyberspace to state that, in the hypermedia screens, the plurisensorial combinatory naturally practiced by our brain to constitute its images has been made possible outside our own brain, since it is this combinatory that is performed on the screen itself. Manovich, for instance, declares that
interactive computer media perfectly fits this trend to externalize and objectify the mind’s operations. The very principle of hyperlinking, which forms the basis of interactive media, objectifies the process of association, often taken to be central to human thinking-Mental processes of reflection, problem solving, recall, and association are externalized, equated with following a link, moving to a new page, choosing a new image, or a new scene. (Manovich 2001: 60-61)
In a similar line of argument, I am proposing that, in the same way that the operations performed in cyberspace externalize the operations of the mind, interactivity in the Web externalize the most profound essence of dialogism, the one that was defended in Bakhtin’s and Peirce’s conceptualization when both brought to the foreground the collective nature of the meanings of language and the eminently social character of the sign. That is why ‘the technologies of cyberspace enhance the gregarious strength, acting as vectors of communion, of sharing of feelings and communitarian connection’ (Lemos 2002: 92).
In cyberspace networks, with their objects exchanged among numberless groups, with their communitarian infinite hypertextual and audiovisual environments and with their shared memories, these megamemories that co-evolve in the frequency and density of the exchanges, Bakhtin’s heteroglossia and the expansion of dialogism into heterologism that is at the heart of Peirce’s notion of the sign and its flows are externalized and highlighted.
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