5365: A Second Chunk of Writing

The next not-quite-thousand.  This is part “next” of my Style paper (see part “first” here) , a discussion and explanation of Media Naturalness Theory.  My next goal (tomorrow, I think) is to dig into the problems MNT (as I’ve described it here) presents for as well as the light it sheds on notions of writing and style.  That is, tomorrow comes the hard part.  As per usu, ignore or comment at will!

Media Naturalness Theory

Media naturalness theory was offered by Ned Kock (2001) to resolve the shortcomings of social presence and media richness theories in their attempt to explain computer-mediated communication (CMC) phenomena—and technologized language, more broadly.  Briefly, social presence theory looks at the degree of “awareness” of other people in different media.  In this unidirectional scale, face-to-face communication has the most social presence, while written communication has the least; tasks at different levels of complexity require different levels of interpersonality, or social presence.  According to media richness theory, more difficult tasks (tasks requiring a great degree of cognitive effort) require a decrease in “ambiguity” in communication about that task, a decrease that is realized through an increase in media richness (which may combine nonverbal cues, rapid feedback, personality traits, natural language, and otherwise more elaborate elements).  Face-to-face is the most rich medium possible, and thus the most effective for reducing ambiguity in discussion (see Daft and Lengel, 1986).  According to this theory, a telephone call is less effective than a video conference because it is less rich.  However, neither of these theories, according to Kock, really explains why face-to-face communication is the best medium for complex, collaborative tasks.  As well, they both smack too much of technological determinism, ascribing too much agency to computer systems and media, and not enough to the humans using them to communicate.

The essential proposition of media naturalness theory is that “decreases in the degree of naturalness of a CMC medium lead to increases in the degree of cognitive effort required from an individual to use the medium for communication” (2004, p333).  Starting from “the notion that Darwinian evolution endowed modern humans with a brain that is ill adapted to CMC” because our brains have evolved for face-to-face modes of communication (p. 341).  The objective ‘naturalness’ of a medium, then, is the degree to which that medium has the qualities of face-to-face interaction, the communication for which the human brain and face has been optimized through evolution.  Kock describes five key elements of face-to-face communication that a medium can incorporate:

(a) collocation, which would allow individuals engaged in a communication interaction to share the same context, as well as see and hear each other; (b) synchronicity, which would allow the individuals to quickly exchange communicative stimuli; (c) the ability to convey and observe facial expressions; (d) the ability to convey and observe body language; and (e) the ability to convey and listen to speech. (333-334)

According to media naturalness theory, the medium bringing the most of these to bear in a given situation will possess more naturalness than other media.  Take for example e-mail, instant messaging, and video-conferencing.  Because it incorporates speech, synchronicity and facial/body expressions (depending on the scope of the video), video-conferencing would have more naturalness than e-mail.  IM, on the other hand, would take a place in between these two: being a text-only medium, it is less natural than video, but since IM is synchronous, it has more naturalness then e-mail.  The medium with the most naturalness, according to this proposition, is the medium through which information (especially for collaborative tasks) takes the least amount of effort to be communicated and thus understood.

This central proposition is followed by a second one, the “speech imperative proposition.”  According to Kock’s research, human vocal evolution came at an extremely high cost: the location of our larynx allows for increased vocal expression, but at the enhanced danger of choking.  (Kock mentions facial muscle evolution as well with this, but it is a lower-cost development than the larynx.)  Because of the potential fitness handicap, it is vocal speech that is the most important element in face-to-face communication (over facial gesture, etcetera).  According to the speech imperative proposition, the use of speech in a medium is significantly more important than all other elements in reducing cognitive effort in communication.  “Suppressing the ability to convey and listen to speech would substantially affect the naturalness of a medium” (335), more so than body language, facial expressions, colocation and synchronicity.  Simply according to our body’s evolution, an expressive human voice is the most important part of a medium’s naturalness.  To return to the earlier telephone/video conference example, if voice quality was equal between the two, the speech imperative proposition would explain a fairly minimal difference in cognitive effort, since both media incorporate speech as the primary mode of communication.  According to Kock (and despite Nichos Carr and James Cascio’s recent debates in The Atlantic Monthly about the deep-reaching effects of online texts on our brains) writing, on the other hand, is far too recent to have “influenced the formation of our biological communication apparatus in any way that could be seen as very significant” (335), especially in comparison to speech.

The third and final proposition in media naturalness theory is the cognitive adaptation proposition.  Basically, because “the human brain is the most ‘plastic’ brain in the animal kingdom” (p 336), humans can adapt to certain media through repeated use that may counter our evolved sense of naturalness.  That is, through long enough use and training, the levels of cognitive effort required to complete a task with the medium will decrease, overcoming or countering our instinctive ‘need’ for natural, face-to-face (and thus ‘easy’) communication (p 336).

Among the important differences Kock points out between media naturalness theory and social presence/media richness theories, one is especially prescient to my argument here.  Social presence and media richness theories ascribe static, inherent qualities to media themselves, qualities that then concretely and directly affect the degree of presence or richness a specific medium has.  Kock’s “psychobiological model” focuses not on inherent traits of media, but on “our biological communication apparatus” itself (p 340).  That is, “naturalness” is a perceived, externally ascribed quality—and one that can be adapted around—it is not a fixed quality, essential to the ‘nature’ of the medium, whether it be video, online chat, codex book, or blog.


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