Playing with modes of engagement

8 min read


Let us, for a moment, consider that most internet of things: trolling, and flame wars. My supposition here is that far from being a disagreement over the internet, the very disposition and our modes of engagement with the internet is their cause.

Now, there have been previous articles that have made a similar case. In those cases, however, it was the anonymity or more precisely the masking effects of the internet that were the cause (Newman, 2015).

However, my position here is that it is, in fact, not the effect of the internet but the modes of engagement it encourages. But we must be more precise than this, instead we must look at the specific modes of engagement and in this case, the specific asymmetries that we encounter.

Typically, at this point, where we bring into the argument the notion of imbalance and asymmetry, our thoughts instinctively turn to the concept of power. The imbalance of power for instance and the politics that this specifically engenders.

Instead, I’m taking the position that by looking for power and politics, we will find power and politics and, therefore, we should not rush to bring this to the fore. This is not to imply that this is an apolitical stance. Instead, it’s an attempt to engage with the modes of engagement as they occur, and then examine them ‘as is’ — then seeing what may emerge.

To this end, let us first examine what I mean by modes of engagement.

What do we mean by Modes of Engagement?

Miller and Horst (2013) have argued that we are ‘not one iota more mediated’ by the rise of digital technologies’ (ibid, p.11). By this, they are arguing against the sense that digital technologies somehow get in the way of our intrinsic humanity — or our ability to communicate ‘naturally’.

Instead, they argue that digital technologies are actually helpful in revealing how we are always subject to mediations when we communicate. For non-digital, it is just that those mediations are less visible, as they have faded into our cultural consciousness. Much like Bourdieu’s notion of how, through habitus, ‘social order is progressively inscribed in people’s minds’ through ‘cultural products’ (Bourdieu, 1986, p.471).

However, when we talk about communication, there is always the notion of ‘modes of engagement’. These describe not mediation, but ways in which we interact instead. For example, there has been much written about the ‘attention economy’ (Nedelkopoulou, 2017, p.354) which emerged from the pervasive nature of digital technologies and subsequent information overload (ibid, p.354).

However, this presupposes a mode of engagement that is based on the person’s attention to the things ‘on’ our screens — through which our attention becomes ‘a scarce resource’ (ibid, p.355). But this, in many ways, is simply the argument that we are mediated by digital technologies reframed.

Instead, we need to avoid looking at modes of engagement as intrinsically mediating or to take a ‘moral’ position on them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What we need to do is look at these ‘modes of engagement’ at a more fundamental level — as ways in which we engage ‘with’ a digital technology, not the ways in which we engage ‘over’ a digital technology,

Therefore, it is not a question of attention or mediation but instead an examination of the shifting modes of engagement. More importantly, that we may encounter asymmetry in engagement modes — how we can be in one mode of engagement but the person or thing we are communicating with can be in a separate mode of engagement.

This means that through these mismatched modes of engagement, we can end up with technological dispositions towards what appear to be anti-social behaviours.

Let us now sketch out three possible modes of engagement. These modes of engagement recognise that there are more than two parties in any exchange on the internet. By this, I do not mean the notion of mass-communication, but instead, that when we communicate via digital technology we can also communicate with the ‘thing’ itself. This is not to introduce mediation by the back door — as it’s not the technical object getting in the way — but instead that the technical object becomes a further party that we may wish to communicate with.

However, and here’s the rub, by focussing on mediation as something that is always there we inadvertently make the technology transparent, and therefore instead occlude the concept of the mode of engagement.

Direct communication

The first mode of engagement that we will introduce is the notion of dialogue. This is simply the notion of two people conversing. It could be multiple people, but the mode of engagement stands. That of people engaged in a dialogue by whatever means necessary. In fact, should we observe the dialogue in practice, we might witness the mediums change. Perhaps beginning on a phone via a text message, then moving to phone via voice and finally face to face.

The result is the same, people communicating with people. Let us call this direct communication.

Conceptual communication

The next mode of engagement is that of people communicating with concepts. Now, all communication could contain this to a certain extent. However, in digital communications, there appears to be a particular mode of engagement where people begin to communicate with a concept and not the person (this might be where we invoke the theory of masks (Newman, 2015) as mentioned earlier).

This is not intended to frame this as a notion of helpful objectivity, but as an entirely incomprehensible mode of engagement to the person who has framed or enacted the concept, if they are in another mode of engagement. In this case, the rules of engagement have not been agreed explicitly or tacitly.

However, we may also meet people engaging in this mode together, but more often than not this is deeply asymmetrical. We shall call this conceptual communication.

Technological communication

The final mode we will introduce here is that of communication with the machine. For this, we must make a mental leap. I am not talking here about people communicating over a machine, but instead that they are concerned with the machine itself.

This is not to imply that when we use our automated personal assistant on our phone or communicate with an AI bot that we are communicating with the machine — far from it. In these instances, we could more realistically argue that we are, in fact, in a mode of engagement much more aligned to ‘direct communication’.

Instead, by this, we mean that we are talking to the machine, technology, or system. This is conceptually difficult to parse — so perhaps an example will help.

In Julian Dibbel’s examination of anti-social behaviour online ‘A rape in Cyberspace’ (1998) we were introduced to a social world where an unpleasant member ‘Mr Bungle’ hacks the code/system to make people do and say unpleasant things. Great offence is taken at his actions, and he is eventually exorcised from the community for his anti-social actions.

However, here we have the assumption that he was in the same mode of engagement ‘direct communication’ as everyone else. Instead, there is another possibility, that he was communicating with the machine. This is not to excuse his behaviour, far from it, as knowing that you are in an asymmetrical exchange is part of our responsibility to each other. This is particularly the case if you can do things others can not, or our actions may cause harm to others.

However, by playing with the code and conventions, he was instead entirely focused on what he ‘could’ do from a technical perspective.

This temptation to explore and see what can be done is something that Langdon Winner has specifically called out for criticism, particularly when coupled with his conceptions of technological somnambulism.

“Evidently technological accomplishment has become a temptation that no person can reasonably be expected to resist. The fact that some- thing is technically sweet is enough to warrant placing the world in jeopardy.” (Winner, 1977, p.73).

In this context, however, we’ll call this mode of engagement ‘technological communication’. Restricting ourselves instead to the mismatches that occur on a much smaller scale — in Winner’s case, he was talking about the world ending capacity of nuclear weapons.


There are perhaps many more modes of engagement. However, for the purposes of this I’ve posited these three as interesting examples, with the intent to see what happens if we take up an alternate vantage point.

As we have already alluded to, there are inherent asymmetries and frictions to these modes of engagement, particularly as we may slip between them as we engage with others.

But the main thing is that by observing what actually happens, we can begin to theorise and examine these modes of engagement. Then, by playing with these concepts and relations, we may glimpse what they reveal about our interactions and how they are affected by and are entangled in a messy assemblage of people and things.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). ‘The Forms of Capital’. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Capital. J. G. Richardson. New York, Greenwood Press: 241-58.

Dibbell, J., 1998. A Rape in Cyberspace. Available at: Accessed April 15, 2018.

Miller, D. & Horst, H.A., 2013. The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology. In D. Miller & H. A. Horst, eds. Digital anthropology. Bloomsbury, pp. 3–35.

Nedelkopoulou, E., 2017. Attention Please! Changing Modes of Engagement in Device-Enabled One-to-One Performance Encounters. Contemporary Theatre Review, 27(3), pp.353–365.

Newman. S., 2015,

Winner, L., 1977. Autonomous Technology, London, MIT Press.


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