Monday, May 15, 2017

Second Level Effects

In the early nineties, as the various capabilities of new technology rapidly became commonplace, two authors wrote a book that in part addressed what they called Second Level Effects of new technology.  The book Connections by Sara Kiesler and Lee Sproull argued that there were efficiency effects of new technology and derivative effects.

For example, an efficiency, or first level, effect of a spell check software program is that people can create documents with fewer embarrassing errors.  The efficiency effects of e-mail allow for someone in an organization to send messages instantly to a nearly limitless number of people regardless of geographic location. The first level effects of social networks like facebook allow people to connect and reconnect expanding our circle of acquaintances.

Second level effects are also important to consider.  A second level effect of spell check is that some people do not study spelling or that homophones like their, there, and they're can be inserted incorrectly since the spell checker might not be sufficiently sophisticated to realize that, in context, a spelling is inappropriate.  E-mail indeed allows for rapid communication, but a second level effect is that some people avoid necessary face to face interaction.  Facebook does allow us to connect with others but privacy may be compromised.  A few months back a visitor was aghast when we informed her that photographs were displayed on Facebook when she had no idea that these dear personal memories had been shared with, or at least available to, strangers.

I am mostly bemused when technology reflects a person's inconsiderate tendencies. On a bus a while back a fellow was on his phone speaking loudly for 45 minutes conveniently oblivious to those who had to endure his conversation.  I am startled when I am in a public restroom and someone in a stall feels there is nothing wrong with engaging in a cell phone chat that can be heard by anyone else using the facilities.

I think we can extend the idea of second level effects of technology to second level effects of behavior.  It is obvious to many but not all that our behavior has efficiency effects as well as second level effects.  Anyone who has read this blog regularly is familiar with the distinction I make between communication as a transmission phenomenon and communication as a constitutive phenomenon. From a transmission perspective the goal of communication is to make sure that a message gets from sender to receiver.  We evaluate communicators on the basis of how adept they are at reaching their receivers.  The transmission perspective applies to public speaking as well as interpersonal communication to group interaction--to any communication context. The person who gives the commencement address at graduation should get her or his message across to the graduates.  When you speak to your spouse in the morning you want to make sure she or he understands what you are saying to ensure there will be no confusion about whatever issue you wanted to convey.  The newscaster needs listeners to receive what is passing for news that day.

But the constitutive perspective is also important. Communication shapes and forms our organizational, family, and interpersonal relationships. We have all heard the cliche "there is no harm in asking"?    According to it, if you ask someone if they will do you a favor, there is no harm.  But there could be.   Ask a peripheral acquaintance, "Can I borrow your pen" and it is innocuous. But consider asking the acquaintance for a lift home when you live 20 miles out of the way.  Sure, the acquaintance can say, no, and according to the transmission notion of communication there has been no harm.  Message sent and received. Response sent and received.

It is not that simple.  The second level effect of the message may leave an impression that can affect subsequent interactions and even make the receiver want to--for evermore-dodge the person who asked.

Long way to get to where I am going here.  Our communications and behaviors are not straight lines with only immediate effects.  You tell your colleague that he is an idiot, when the colleague has indeed messed up--even though you may be correct and the comment, at the time, warranted--the residual effect of the interaction will linger and infect the future.

Run for office and tacitly accept the endorsements of fringe groups, and there can be second level effects.

In Charlottesville Virginia, the home of the University of Virginia--one of the great universities in the United States--there was a Ku Klux Klan type meeting. In May of 2017.  A white supremacist group apparently felt enabled to congregate with torches in a public park.

The second level effects of technology and residual effects of communicative behavior are not always problematic.  A second level effect of e-mail is that more people can type now than ever before.  A second level effect of Facebook is I am now acquainted with people who might as well have been on another planet previously.  But we must be concerned with the second level effects that can have deleterious effects. Responsible citizens cannot ignore the likely second level effects of behavior that superficially may be benign, but is likely to have corrosive ramifications.  Contending that you had no idea that there are residual effects of communicative behavior is either conveniently short sighted,  or the drivel of a fool.

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