given arbitrariness, then instruction…

Professor fiddles with computer in full view of about 30 graduate students.  Complains audibly that he can’t get rid of something on the screen.  One student (or more) suggests clicking on what seems the offending screen overlay.  Professor clicks there, and then clicks somewhat wildly on various options.  Apparent success.  The overlay shrinks.  But now the cursor is wrong.  A(nother? Or more) student suggests something like “click on the ‘x’ in the upper right corner.  Professor complies and is satisfied with the result.  Professor then uses the sequence he has thereby ended as an example of “distributed cognition.”

And now I, the professor expands on this discussion in the context of the class discussion about arbitrariness and culture.  As we move from identifying the properties of a social field (culture, semiotic system, etc.) to acting within this field, the essential question then becomes: how do human beings deal with the arbitrariness of their world, including the ongoing evolution of new forms of arbitrariness.  This, for a social scientist is an empirical question.  For an anthropologist inspired by conversational analysis, this is also one that must be answered through examining closely instances when, arguably, people face arbitrariness in the midst of a collectivity.  Thus the exemplary usefulness of the above example.

Living with computers and other such technologies involves facing on-going changes in the acts needed to accomplish simple tasks.  Depending on much, this can be exciting or annoying.  During a lecture, using a now unfamiliar computer, the latter is probably the most usual personal response (from watching myself and others as the carefully prepared presentation collapses more or less completely).  The issue, in the context of a lecture on arbitrariness, is that in all cases, the act that will resolve the matter and get the computer to do what one expects, cannot be simply predicted.  Familiarity with stylistic choices by software developers (e.g. Windows vs. Macs) can suggest where to look for the solution.  But one soon discovers that familiarity can lead to dead ends (e.g. the version one is now confronting may be newer or older than the one one is used to and the sequence one has used, does not work).

In cultural anthropology and related field, the usual next step is to invoke the need to “learn” the particular encoding of the task.  This is OK as far as it goes but actually does not specify how this is to happen.  “Learning” is also the search for the instructions that will teach them.  But instructing is not a trivial task, as Garfinkel has shown (2002).

And so, in the instance above, we have an “in-situ” instructional sequence.  But it should lead to more to questions about the collective organization of the sequence than on what the professor learned (which is probably going soon to be an irrelevant bit to knowledge given probably changes in the software).


(Lots of Love?
Laughing out Loud?
Who decides? [the power question]
How does one find out? [the educational question])

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