Being Face to Face: A State of Mind or Technological Design?

Being Face to Face: A State of Mind or Technological Design?

Mary Allan (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) and David Thorns (University of Canterbury, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch030
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The chapter introduces the Bourdieuean habitus and field theory as a framework for an alternative way of investigating how perceptions of Media Rich Conferencing Technologies (MRCT) such as video conferencing, Access Grid and Telepresence systems affect approaches to their design, implementation and application, and the ways in which they are utilized by end users. The habitus and field theory is utilized to provide a break-way from prevalent models of analyzing technology uptake and innovation diffusion and provides a new framework for positioning the MRCT as a social construct operating within interrelating social, economic, environmental, and technological systems. This new positioning opens the way for an alternative view of the role of MRCT and facilitates new approaches to their design.
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Technology is assumed to be designed, developed, and produced by engineers… The orderly image of technical development, so pervasive in all but the most recent technology studies, is not only too simple—it is wrong

—W.E. Bijker



Various Media Rich Conferencing Technologies (MRCT) such as Video Conferencing, Access Grid, and the more recently developed Telepresence systems all promise to enable geographically dispersed people to ‘meet’ in an almost true to life fashion and engage in an almost real face-to-face interaction without the need to travel or physically collocate.

The notion of using electronic telecommunications for enabling geographically dispersed people to connect is not new, and has been around since the first days of the telephone. However, the convergence of multimedia aspects such as video and graphics with telecommunications triggered the notion that these could be used to facilitate a close to real life communication experience (Egido, 1988), and bring telecommunication closer to the gold standard of communication, the face-to-face (FTF) interaction. The reason for this highly regarded capacity of FTF is said to reside in their ability to provide the most robust form of interactions, entailing multiple channels of communication, and various forms of embodiment and practices. Since the début of video conferencing in the 1960s designers and engineers have been developing and trialling numerous solutions devised to enhance the performance of MRCT and bring them closer to producing FTF experience. Today, state of the art technologies offer high definition studio quality audiovisual signals to be experienced in specially fitted rooms designed to create an immersive surrounding that will emulate FTF. However, uptake of these technologies is lower than anticipated (Frost & Sullivan., 2005; Hirsh, Sellen, & Brokopp, 2005; Sankar, 2006; Vilaboy, 2007), implying that expectations have not been fully met and the FTF experience has not yet been satisfactorily transported to the world of telecommunications.

The concept of mimicking FTF experience spawned the notion that MRCT will reduce the need to travel to meetings. Proponents describe the technology as an effective solution for conducting a cheaper, greener and quicker alternative to business travel(Beattie & Greenberg, 2007; Irwin, 2004). These promises are especially attractive in today’s Knowledge Economy, which is reliant on interdependent production processes and requires collaboration across often geographically dispersed sites(Toffler, 1990). Furthermore, the promise to reduce travel carries the prospect of diminishing carbon emissions which is an appealing argument in today’s society concerned about global warming. However, although companies, governments, and other institutions are launching climate policies and strategies, the deployment of greener meeting practices remains a challenge. A Wainhouse Research1 analyst in an interview to the International Herald Tribune pointed out that the level of purchases of low and medium price range MRCT systems is still lower than anticipated, and sales are growing at about 20% a year. The top quality telepresence systems promising the ultimate experience make just one percent of the total videoconferencing sales(Burnham -Finney, 2007). Adopters of MRCT report a relatively low correlation between use of MRCT and travel reduction. Results of Chatsworth Communications’ FTSE 100 companies survey released in May 2008 show that only 5% of respondents claimed to be reducing business travel through the use of video conferencing (Maung, 2008).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Bourdeuian Habitus and Field Approach: A dialectical analysis of practical life, offering the potential to exhibit the interplay between personal practice,(agency) and the external world of social practice(structure) (Bourdieu,1980/1990; Harker, Mahar, & Wilkes, 1990)(Allan, 2005)

Access Grid: A collection of resources assembled for the purpose of supporting collaboration across different locations. Access Grid provides a near-real face-to-face experience in which people can experience “being there” in a shared space with others without having to travel. Generally Access grid ‘nodes’ are specifically equipped rooms. Desktop applications are also sometimes used where specifications allow this for individual users.

Habitus: An infinite capacity to generate products, thoughts perceptions expressions and actions whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its production(Bourdieu, [1980]1990) (p. 55)

Knowledge Economy: Described as the intangible economy, where electronic blips transmitted across worldwide computerised networks are replacing capital(Bell, 1973; Binde, 2005; Fuchs, 2006; Toffler, 1981; Toffler, 1990), it is a dematerialised economy, where materials have been replaced by intellectual resources and services(Block & Hirschhorn, 1979; Carlaw et al., 2006; Castells, 1996; Drucker, 1969; Toffler, 1990), and the workers produce intangible, intellectual rather than manual or material products, (Drucker, 1969; Drucker, 2003; Thorns & Wang, forthcoming).

Field: A space of conflict and competition in which participants fight to establish monopoly over the species of capital effective in it(Bourdieu, [1980]1990) (p.17). Or in other words a field is constituted by the relational differences in position of social agents, and the boundaries of a field are demarcated by where its effects end.

Carbon Footprint: The term is rooted in the language of Ecological Footprinting (Wackernagel 1996), and stands for the amount of gas emissions causing climate change and are related with human production or consumption activities(Wiedmann & Minx, 2007)

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