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Style and ethical relations in computer-mediated communication

Rooksby, Emma (2000) Style and ethical relations in computer-mediated communication. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a comparatively new phenomenon, enabling textual communication among persons regardless of their spatial relations to one another. CMC opens up new communicative possibilities, such as synchronous textual exchanges with remote others. This thesis explores some of the ways in which CMCs affect our ethical relations with other persons.

I first set out an account of personal identity as constituted and understood through ongoing social engagements. I argue that a person’s self consists not only in the nexus of their beliefs and desires, but is also constituted and understood performatively, through their styled verbal and non-verbal performances, the totality of which constitute the life style of that person. This account of the stylistic aspects of selves shows the ethical importance of attending to others’ styles for establishing and maintaining interpersonal understandings, and illustrates that some forms of misunderstandings are stylistic.

This account of the stylistic aspect of self, is preparatory to an analysis, through the rest of the thesis, of ethical dimensions of how persons relate to and come to understand one another in CMC. The analysis has theoretical and applied moments. The theoretical moments take empathy and action as important aspects of interpersonal relations generally. I draw attention to the limitations that CMC places on empathic experience, an important aspect of ethical understanding of others’ selves. Despite this limitation on empathy, I argue, textual media such as CMC support forms of individual and collective social action, which I call performative inscriptions.

The applied dimension of the analysis begins with an examination of the ways in which the technical qualities of CMC, such as machine-dependence, variable temporality of exchange and textuality, structure the ethical possibilities of CMCs. I illustrate ways in which stylistic misunderstandings resulting from the technical qualities of the medium work against careful attending to others’ selves as performed via CMC. The argument is then broadened out to examine the implications of my account of stylistic aspects of self for relations of friendship, and for political relations in CMC. I conclude that CMC tends to constrain close friendships through the limits it places on ethical understanding and on shared activities. The potential of CMCs to produce stylistic misunderstandings need not be an impediment to political relations. However, insofar as political CMC relations rely on or are continuous with personal CMC relations, stylistic misunderstandings may in some cases limit the capacity to sustain political communities on-line.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Bowden, Peta
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