This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). See the conference website for information as well as event registration.

Jillet Sam

The panel  “Augmented Reality: Intersecting  Atoms and Bits” promises to be challenging and intellectually stimulating. The papers in this panel seek to add theoretical sophistication to the term augmented reality, by drawing on a diverse body of theoretical and methodological approaches.

James Witte proposes a new conceptual framework for exploring augmented reality, one which incorporates the differences between the communication patterns and behavior within analog as opposed to digital channels of communication. Significantly, within this model, Witte highlights the interaction between the researcher and the researched with regard to these channels, distinguishing between analog accounts (researcher as an interacting participant) and digital accounts (researcher is not an interacting participant). Jeremy Antley, through a case study, explores the interplay between digital dualism and augmented reality. Displaying a breadth of historical contextuality that is unusual in our field, Antley explores this interplay through a historical comparative analysis of the wave of textual augmentation in Russian history. Sally Applin and Michael D Fischer offer critical analysis of the term “augmented reality”, by incisively juxtaposing digital technology with the historical context of technological innovation and its effects on “reality”. Highlighting the need for a more precise theoretical vocabulary, Applin and Fischer propose PolySocial Reality as a conceptual model that is able to represent multiple networks of interaction as layers of independent yet partially overlapping networks, rather than as an extended network. Finally, Randy Lynn critiques the reductive essentialism through which digital dualism is reproduced within the literature by placing the explanatory focus on the essential nature of the medium itself, instead of the actors, settings, cultures, and social or technical structures involved. He then proposes a common theoretical framework which is based on a synthesis of microsociological principles of the cognitive, interactionist and ethnomethodological approaches.

While offering a critical analysis of the digital dualism inherent in the existing literature, all of these papers push for an extension and clarification of the visualization of augmented reality.

[Paper titles and abstracts are after the jump.]

James Witte, Synthesizing the Analog and Digital

This paper rests on the assertion that the distinction between off- and online behavior has been rendered obsolete, making it necessary to develop a new framework that analytically demarcates the analog from the digital.  Moreover, there is a need to make this distinction at two levels: first, between the analog and digital channels of communication that support live behavior, and second between the analog and digital accounts used by social scientists to represent live behavior.

As is widely recognized, the features of analog and digital channels of communication are associated with different communication patterns potentially resulting in different societal behaviors and outcomes. For example, there are essential differences in the ways that information travels through analog as compared to digital channels. For example, face-to-face interaction (with high bandwidth and high interactivity, e.g., a 1-on-1 conversation) is very different from interaction mediated through digital technology (with the potential for extreme breadth and/or heterogeneity of coverage, e.g., a  1-to-many Tweet).

It is at the second level where this paper introduces a new distinction.  Live behavior is meaningful social behavior with real consequences; behavior that may be communicated and mediated through various technologies as well as face-to-face.  Live behavior is made up of a wide range of actions, beliefs, knowledge and attitudes as thought and experienced by individuals and those with whom they interact.  This live behavior includes a variety of politically relevant actions such as voting, participating in a demonstration or expressing one’s opinion by signing a petition; however, also actions such as posting to a blog, reacting to a Facebook status update or following a Twitter feed.  Apart from those cases where they are directly involved in the behavior, social scientists are typically not privy to actual live behavior, but instead work with accounts of actions, beliefs, knowledge and attitudes.  These accounts may be characterized as either analog or digital accounts.

An analog account is one where the researcher interacts with those providing information about the actions, beliefs, knowledge and attitudes that make up their behavior.  An analog account captures live behavior as acted out or narrated by the subject with the possibility for more or less synchronous purposeful interaction intended to yield a fuller account of the live behavior.  An interviewer may probe a topic; a survey may branch into multiple paths depending on a subject’s response; an observer may move to a different position to get a different angle on an ongoing interaction.  It is this ability to interact, which makes such accounts analogous to live behavior.  Digital accounts–most obviously a posting to a blog or social media site, but also a handwritten diary–are accounts where the social scientist is not an interacting participant. Moreover, digital materials such as tweets or other social meeting posts may form the basis for an analog account, if these materials are part of a theoretically guided interaction between the researcher and the sources for the materials.

Jeremy Antley (@jsantley), Charting the Waves of Augmentation: Textual Dualism & Augmented Reality in the Russian Empire 

While the current focus on how digital technology alters our conception of the self and its place in the broader perceived reality yields fascinating insight into modern issues, there is much to be gained by analyzing the presence of augmented reality in a pre-digital era.  In a period, not far removed from our present, where moveable type and increasingly individualized documentation fueled the textual wave of augmentation, it was largely governments- not corporations- that sought to harness the informative potential offered by these analog technologies.  Western European powers, like France, Britain and Prussia/Germany, fostered impressive civil bureaucracies that utilized growing literacy rates in order to create a disciplinary regime based on documentation, while another great power, Russia, struggled to achieve the same results with its meager supply of trained civil servants.  If Russian authorities wanted to build a foucauldian gaze of panoptic power through documentation, they had to make compromises in order to do so.

One essential compromise of Russian documentary practice hinged on embracing a stable and conservative textual dualist conception of reality with regards to tracking populations or promulgating laws.  On an individual level, this meant that lived identity and the identity held by the ‘gaze’ of documentation consistently remained asynchronous when conflated for the purposes of military conscription, admission into university, acquiring a passport, etc… On a national governance level, textual dualism provided the absolutist regime a means to utilize aspects of the liberalistic program without ceding any measure of real power to self-governing bodies or embracing truly civic concepts of citizenship devoid of ethnic or religious qualifiers.  Again, the textual reality espoused by tsarist documentary practice did little more than provide a thin veneer to justify inequalities among estates and could do almost nothing to mitigate the asynchronicity between the document (in all its various forms) and lived experience, which could take form in rumors, ‘everyday resistance’ or even outright revolt.

The interplay between textual dualist conceptions of identity and the augmented reality those conceptions measured up against thus largely framed many social conflicts experienced by the Russian empire over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Yet this interplay contained significant variance along the spectrum between dualist and augmented perspectives.  Sometimes peasants embraced textual dualism for the strategic benefit it could provide, but they were just as comfortable in arguing an augmented perspective to vex authorities when required.  Authorities often granted some space for augmented claims to exist, simply because efficiently enforcing a dualist conception through discipline proved beyond the capacity of the ruling regime.  The unique blending of documentary dedication on behalf of the state, a malnourished bureaucracy mostly incapable of enforcing disciplinary desires and a largely illiterate population canny enough to exploit the inconsistencies of both, give the Russian experience unusual depth in terms of an augmented analytical perspective.  Charting the wave of textual augmentation in Russian history helps explain the interplay between digital dualism and augmented reality, including the spectrum of strategic potential between both, in our present day.

Sally Applin(@anthropunk)  (Co-Author: Michael D. Fischer)PolySocial Reality: Augmentation and Experience 

Until recently there was a strong tendency in both metaphor and substance to describe “online” experience as at least marked, and often as “outside” normal existence; another, virtual, world. The dualist conception that these are separate “realities” has been increasingly contested by a range of research.

“Augmented Reality” is used to describe technology that overlays digital images, sounds or text onto a “real-time” camera view of the immediate locale. The term “Augmented Reality” has recently been used to describe the various layers of augmentations that create what we experience as normal reality; experience is augmented by any idea or technology that expands human capabilities, utilities and experiences. The usage of “Augmented Reality” in this way is as a unification of previously disparate information.

“Augmentation” is the default state of human experience going back to it’s origins. For example, evolution is adaptive augmentation, as each genetic addition ostensibly counts as an augmentation to the previous “reality,” and substantively modifies the potentiality of experience. If digital technology is augmenting reality, than perhaps all forms of technology, including the stone axe and electric light, are augmentations. Not all individuals have access to the same technology at the same times. Furthermore, individuals can benefit from technology in different ways at different times. Augmentation then, creates a heterogenous environment. The extended definition of “Augmented Reality” doesn’t currently account for heterogenous distribution.

PolySocial Reality (PoSR) relates to one possible unified representation of heterogenous individuals interacting with each other in time, space and the network. PoSR is a conceptual model aimed at understanding what emerges from overall interaction and communications that create a context from which new configurations of individuals, and coordination between individuals, can emerge. PoSR is based upon the core concept that dynamic relational structures emerge from the aggregate of multiplexed data creations of all individuals within the domain of networked or local experiences. In other words, PoSR describes the aggregate of all the experienced “locations” and “communications” of all individuals in multiple physical or social networks at the same or different times. PoSR represents multiple networks, not simply as an extended network, but as layers of independent networks that partially overlap.

PoSR was originally developed as a way to visualize overlaps between the networks of interacting individuals to evaluate changes induced by participation in network activity regarding how much mutual information was available to interlocutors. It has also been used to consider the impact of applications of Augmented Reality to increasing social cohesion and improving interaction between solo mobile users and resources in their spatial locale. Within PoSR we can represent the impacts of technologies such as AR as partially overlapping networks.

Thus, PoSR represents a framework within which we can investigate the interaction of different experiences arising from technological augmentation.

Randy Lynn (@rlynn82), Actor, Medium, Setting: Integrating Online and Offline  

How to move beyond “digital dualism” (e.g., Jurgenson 2012) is currently the most pressing theoretical dilemma of technology studies. This paper will present a theoretical model that accomplishes this goal by (1) uniting the three traditional standpoints that studies of the digitally mediated interactional order have adopted—the actor, the medium, and the setting—which allows for the effects of media to be examined without sliding into a reductive essentialism; and (2) links this synthetic approach to existing microsociological theories of offline interactions, bringing together digital and so-called “real” interactions under a common framework founded upon cognitive, interactionist, and ethnomethodological principles.

In general, studies of digital mediation that emphasize the standpoint of the medium have been particularly susceptible to digital dualism, as effects that are argued to be inherent to the medium typically dominate their explanatory narratives. Studies that emphasize actors, by contrast, have long recognized the limitations of digital dualism, since actors have multiple media at their disposal and agentially use them according to their particular habits, tastes, preferences, motives, and gratifications. Studies that focus upon specific digitally mediated settings have also generally done a better job of steering away from digital dualism, since they typically account for broader cultural, structural, and technical influences as well as interactional norms and expectations indigenous to the setting itself. However, all of these standpoints have strengths and limitations, which will be discussed.

A unification of the standpoints of actor, medium, and setting offers an opportunity to combine the strengths of each approach while minimizing limitations. Often, I argue, digital dualism is reproduced when studies do not fully adopt one or more of these standpoints and are at a loss to comprehensively explain their findings. These gaps are then argued to be traceable to the essential nature of the digital medium, when they are instead traceable to actors, settings, cultures, and social or technical structures. As a result, these gaps are invoked as justification for modifying or rewriting extant theories of social behavior to describe digital mediation, thus reinforcing the false separation of the digital and the “real.”

At the same time, an actor-medium-setting synthesis is very resonant with existing microsociological theories. The dual emphasis upon actor and setting, for example, is mirrored by the two major schools of interactionism: symbolic interactionism’s actor-focused theory and Goffman’s setting-focused dramaturgical sociology of the interactional order. The medium—which, I argue, is ultimately a perceptual phenomenon (i.e., concerned with how stimuli are presented and selectively attended to by actors)—intersects considerably with cognitive sociology. I will explore these connections and suggest that the actor-medium-setting framework for online interactions can be seen as a manifestation of a general model of interaction encompassing online and offline.