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The Interweaved Fabrics of Reality: Physical, Social and Intentional, Yishay Mor
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18 November 2011
Consider a well-trained football team, or a group of Tai-Chi players. We are fascinated by the way in which they act together; we derive aesthetic pleasure and excitement from observing them – and even more (if we can) from being a part of such an activity. The effect (and effectiveness) of such joint action is related to two characteristics. First, the participants are synchronized in space, social grouping and intent. Second, they are engaged in a patterned practice. The first observation points to what I see as a fundamental way in which we organize our experiences and construct reality. The second is probably unfamiliar to most readers. In this paper I will present these concepts, consider the relationship between them, and their relevance to the understanding of and designing for learning with social mobile technologies.
Our actions are situated in contexts of physical location, social interaction and intentional state. We move within these spaces, and make sense of the world through them. Bruner (1991) observed that we create and share meanings by constructing narratives from our experiences. These narratives are composed of sequences of events – each occurring in a specific location, involving specific actors and noted for its relevance to particular intentions. The semantics of reality are defined in terms of rules governing our ability to act within these spaces. Consequently, we adopt regular forms of behaviour in response to recurring configurations of intentional, social and physical environments. Such forms have been described by Roepstorff et al (2010) as patterned practices.
The notion of patterned practice emerged in anthropological research as a response to a growing awareness to the problematic use of culture as a collective attribute. On one hand, research shows significant intra-cultural variance. On the other, the mobility and connectiveness of human society engender cross-cultural threads and trends and create new groups which do not fit existing labels. Instead, Roepstorff et al (2010) argue that “human group life orders itself into specific and semi-stable patterns of interaction, i.e. practices. Practices are shaped by material conditions, social dynamics and normative orders” (p. 1057) and these patterned practices should constitute a more useful axis of analysis. Individuals’ engagement in patterned practices shape their mind and body, and in return they reshape the environment – physical and social – in which they operate.
An awareness of patterned practices, with an acute sensitivity to the interweaving of the physical, social and intentional fabric in which these are situated, provides us a powerful tool for understanding, and consequently designing, the learning potential of experiences afforded by mobile and social technologies. Such technologies can amplify or fragment the cohesion of experiences across these dimensions: sitting at a café with a friend, I constantly check my twitter feed: I am participating in an established practice, clearly defined in location, social contract and joint intent – yet I am not fully present, part of me is engaged in other interactions, detached from the physical context. On the other hand, I participate in the twitter back-channel of a conference – thus simultaneously capitalizing on and contributing to the shared intents of the social group present at that location.