Vygotsky's Developmental Theories and the Adulthood of Computer Mediated Communication: a Comparison and an Illumination

Mary Cecilia Bacalarski, MA

Universidade de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, S.P., Brazil

The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA

This paper aims at showing how Vygotsky's methods of analysis and conclusions about the development of human thought and language are still accurate today and can be successfully employed in the study of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). Vygotsky's claims on concept formation and maturation will also be analyzed in detail and proven helpful in establishing the current and future phases of CMC. Ten other topics in Vygotsky's studies will be briefly touched upon, as suggestions for further studies.


Although Vygotsky's extensive use of evolutionary approaches and linguistic analysis has been replaced to a certain extent by cultural analysis and linguistic and cultural relativism, his perspective on the differences in developmental processes at work in the various genetic domains is still inestimable, providing the researcher with efficient tools to clarify and possibly redirect the ongoing developmental process in CMC, sheding a new light onto Internet exchanges and other CMC activities.

CMC is a relatively new field of studies, and the exchanges taking place through Internet show many characteristics which are those of a child's discourse, before the child has been exposed to a significant number of experts, enough to enable it to bridge the gap between spontaneous and scientific concepts.

There are several different kinds of CMC taking place all over the world at present, but for the sake of this study I will base my claims on observation made in just three of them: TALK, IRC, and MEDIAMOO. These constitute by no means an exhaustive list; they are to be considered merely as samples of CMC which mirror part of my own personal experience in the field.

Among scholars, using the UNIX system, there are "talks" going on all the time. In Brazil, we give a "finger" command so as to know which other scholars are logged on at that specific time, and then we "ring" one of them through the talk command, and suggest an academic topic for discussion. This talk helps both scholars clarify concepts, exchange knowledge, and grow academically.

Internet Relay Chat is a gathering of people, mostly undergraduate and graduate students, who select a channel to join in accordance with their interests. Each channel (there are hunderds of them) has a main "topic" that is being discussed, which can range from scientific concepts to the Soccer World Cup. The specified topic usually gets diluted in time, and what takes place is an informal "chat". Hence the name IRC.

MEDIAMOO (MUD Object Oriented) ( MUD: Multiple User Domain)
This is a permanent "place" in Internet: a house, a school, or even a whole city, where people can move, talk, and even do things, like exchanging money in a bank, buying items, eating, and getting a job -- all in the virtual world. Mediamoos are visited by both students and scholars, and some of them are very elaborate virtual environments.


The computer literacy level of computer users taking advantage of those three "spaces" described above is highly varied, so much so that some can be considered as pre-puberty types, who still are in the first phase of concept formation, be it the first stage, the trial and error one (really just testing the machine, and making a lot of mistakes in trying), or the second stage, grouping their "experimental objects", i.e., the computer and its commands, in a syncretic organization of their visual field. Other users have had longer exposure to the Internet, so they are already in the third stage of the first phase of concept formation: they are able to re-use knowledge they have acquired in previous encounters with other users through the net, and they use elements taken from these different occasions ("heaps") in a differently organized way.

Some other computer users are already in what Vygotsky called the second phase of concept formation, "thinking in complexes". Individual "objects" (by objects I mean computer commands) are united in their minds by bonds that really exist between them. The connections these users make are not a result of their own impressions only, but also actual connections between things -- and according to Vygotsky, this is "a decisive step away from syncretism toward objective thinking" (Thought and Language, p. 61).

We can recognize the existence of complexes of the associative type (users notice bonds between the first basic commands ever learned, maybe as they were being instructed in word processing, and those commands used in Internet; complexes of the collection type (whenever they realize that complementary distribution is present in CMC; for instance, one cannot consider both a talk exchange and an irc one as the same kind of conversation, but they do complement each other, in that the first may represent a first tentative contact with a person belonging to another milieu, and the second can be seen as a group meeting of all people interested in the same topic of discussion. Likewise, irc and moo, both community gatherings, are not the same kind of reunion, though a less experienced user might think so at first.

The chain complex is the next step. Computer users, who at first just take part in talk exchanges, start joining irc and moo groups; in order to succeed in these, they have to start joining individual links into a single chain. They must carry meaning over from one link to the next. They must make adaptations, and start drawing their own conclusions, because, though talk, irc, and moo are all possibilities of contact among people through Internet, each has its own peculiarities. In the end, however, being an expert in one of them helps learning how to deal with the others, but this help only materializes when the user is able to think using Vygotsky's "chain complex".

The presence of the diffuse complex follows as a natural consequence, since computer users not versed in computer science, who received all or most of their intellectual training in the Humanities, are not always very well acquainted with how the machine (or Internet for that matter) works, but they do draw their own conclusions and devise their own personal methods of dealing with the machine, though not in a very scientific way. Hence the fluidity of the attributes and bonds, which may change from link to link in an imperceptible way.

Nevertheless, as time passes and more and more CMC exchanges take place, the user arrives at the pseudo-concepts, and that can be

proven if we observe a computer science expert using Internet, and compare him/her to a user who is not a computer expert: they seem to be pressing the same keys and arriving at the same results, but the way thse both individuals view the computer differs enormously, and there is an immense gap between the knowledge they have about what actually takes place when you participate in a CMC exchange. They understand each other, and both "understand" the machine, in that they know how to use it to achieve their goals, but this mutual understanding is illusory -- their way of thinking is different. In a word, an expert and a plain user "think the same thing in a different way, by means of diferent mental operations" (Thought and Language, p. 69), just like the child and the adult, in Vygotsky's experiment done with Sakharov's double stimulation method.

I believe that this is the point we have reached in CMC now, in terms of our developmental history of concept formation.

Of course this is not an experimental analysis, and is open to questioning; it is merely a tentative, mostly intuitive look at a new phenomenon in communication: and maybe some of us have already grown out of the complex phase and are already developing "potential concepts", based on the singling out of certain common attributes between the elements. I have not had the opportunity of recognizing these potential concepts in CMC yet, though, and, in fact, I am not sure whether we have already started our way to abstraction there, i.e., our path to the formation of true concepts.

Since potential concepts may be formed either in the sphere of perceptual thinking or in the sphere of action-bound, practical thinking (cf. Thought and Language, p. 78), I daresay that the second kind is the one which will be present in CMC, because it is similar functional meanings that users look for when they are facing their machines. This type is, according to Vygotsky, an important source of potential concepts, so I believe we will achieve them eventually, even if by now we are still on the way to developing our concepts, like "computer children".

However, I do not believe that considering computer users "children" has any derogatory meaning, since Vygotsky himself said that "even the normal adult, capable of forming and using concepts, does not consistently operate with concepts in his thinking....the adult constantly shifts from conceptual to concrete, complexlike thinking" (Thought and Language, p. 75).This is what I think happens in CMC, which is a new kind of communication, using a new kind of instrument or tool. The question when or whether we will achieve adulthood in it is not feasible to be answered right now, as further studies and further development in the field will have to take place before we can affirm with certainty that we have become computer- literate adults.

Another point that calls my attention when observing CMC take place, which points out to the primitiveness of thought involved, is the fact that most computer users seem to prefer Macintosh to IBM computers. Computer experts say that IBM's are much more powerful and advanced, but Mac's are more popular, "easier", more user-friendly, and one of the reasons for this ease is their organization of items and commands by means of images and symbols, whereas IBM relies more on words. We all know that a level of mentation rich in images and symbols is the characteristic of a primitive's mind. The use of concrete images instead of abstract concepts is clearly a distinctive feature of primitive thought. This shows again that the common person's level of achievement with computers is like that of a child, and may remain so for a long time yet.

On the other hand, since, as Vygotsky believes, the use of the word is an integral part of the concept developing process, and the word is the main tool in CMC, as far as exchages between people are concerned, no matter which system is being used as a mediational tool, then I firmly believe that we will eventually arrive at the formation of genuine concepts in CMC. This will be the moment when we will be able to say that adulthood in CMC has been achieved.


There are many other points cleared out by Vygotsky during his studies, which are mirrored in CMC today, but since we are here limited by time and space, I will just outline ten of them briefly, as suggestions for further studies in the field. The following of Vygotsky's ideas could provide food for thought:


### Mediation: social interaction mediated by physical tools: "....human action typically employs 'mediational means' such as tools and language, and.... these mediational means shape the action in essential ways." (Voices of the Mind, p. 12)

### In CMC, the computer is a very effective instrumental tool, bridging the physical gap between interactants. In the same way as a child needs books, pencils, teachers, and contact with more experienced peers ("experts"), we need the computer, the new programs which become available virtually everyday, and the interchange with other, more experienced CMC users.


### The use of semiotic instruments whose meaning changes from person to person: Vygotsky believed (and shared this view with Bakhtin) that to understand human mental action one must understand the semiotic devices used to mediate such action.

### Semiotic elements are present in the paralinguistic features in CMC -- there is as yet no glossary on CMC paralanguage, so that each computer user creates his/her own symbols and signs, and/or borrows them from other users: this explains a lot about the users' mental activities.


### The individual as an agent of social interaction, being at the same time influenced by the environment and influencing it.

### In CMC, users interact with the machine, which answers back accordingly, so that a dialogue between man and machine is established before the actual dialogue between users can take place. If you press the right keys, and do valid commands, there will be a response, and this will enable you to communicate with the user at his/her own microcomputer terminal.


### Instruments, bearing several meanings (the same for everybody) as contrasted to signs, which have specific, personal meanings.

### The computer can be seen as a sign, it does have different meanings for different people, and is used in various ways, depending on the expertise level of the user.


### Internalization of overt action, the rite of passage from interpersonal to intrapersonal functions, constituting an inner reconstruction of an external operation.

### This might be a correct description of the phase some of us are living now in CMC -- many users have begun to internalize ways and concepts related to computer usage in communication. For some (mainly computer science experts) the computer is already an "invisible mediator", whereas for others (Humanities computer users, for example) this stage remains yet to be achieved, since they still must struggle to devise ways to interact with the machine. Hence the need for contact with experts, which will help greatly in their development and growth, as Vygotsky used to say about formal instruction, pointing to the usefulness of contact with experts.


### Phases in the development of speech:

a)At first, the social phase, when speech is disorganized and dispersed.

a)Some CMC users are still at this point in their endeavors.

b)Then, egocentrical speech, working as a thinking tool, orienting action; the child's action mediated by the child's external speech.

b)In CMC, whenever we give commands, by pressing keys or using the mouse, in a typical trial and error way, we are exemplifying this phase. I have witnessed many instances in which users actually talk aloud to the computer...

c)Afterwards, this egocentrical speech becomes a whisper, till it fades completely, transformed into inner speech.

c)Some (not many!) CMC users are clearly in this phase already, and the only thing you can hear is their tapping on the computer keyboard.


### Social interaction enables constant individual growth and development: you never achieve total maturity.

### This is very true in terms of CMC, in many different ways, e.g.:

a) mastering the machine is a constant challenge;

b) through the exchanging of ideas with other scholars we are constantly learning about new points of view and looking at issues in a richer way;

c) interacting with people from different cultures through Internet favors our social growth, and enrichment of social relations and cultural understanding are a logical consequence -- and the frequent misunderstandings due to cultural diversity, though sometimes harmful, can also be highly pedagogical.


### Zone of Proximal Development, the space between spontaneous and expert-mediated growth.

### In CMC there are new possibilities everyday, and change happens so often that nobody can stagnate, and the contact with experts is inestimable. Development is a fast and constant process.

Interaction, in CMC, is a crucial point: it is through interaction that we grow. Besides, CMC makes it easier for shy people to talk more and meet experts they might not dare to approach by other means. Being behind a computer screen provides a shield which has both positive and negative consequences, but one of the positive ones is the enabling of a more democratic division of the conversational floor.


### Spontaneous Versus Scientific concepts

### At first, in CMC, we rely on our deductions, our experience with the machine, thus developing our lot of spontaneous concepts, but through Internet exchanges (i.e., through social interaction and the use of mediational tools) these concepts acquire a more scientific stance, and become more elaborate and mature.


### Task and millieu prompted growth: thinking and behavior (especially in adolescents) is prompted not from within, but from without, by the social milieu. Entering the world of adults and being confronted with tasks provides a crucial factor in the emergence of conceptual thinking.

### Likewise, in CMC, if any of us are -- as I believe, and have spoken about at length previously --- on our way to adolescence, we are being confronted with new demands made on us by the "computer milieu", a bubbling field of activity. These demands will surely help us grow fast, and eventually we will reach higher stages of development.


In short, all of Vygotsky's theories have points of contact with CMC. We know his theory of the nature of man clearly transcended the ideological rifts dividing the world in his lifetime. In the same way, CMC's ultimate end is to reduce boarders, creating a universal "virtual" field for the exchange of knowledge, more genuinely uniform than the "real" world.

Vygotsky's developmental theory is indeed "a description of the many roads to individuality and freedom" (Bruner), so, it is in fact a necessary asset for the evaluation of our current world, so much in need of free, mature individuals, who can make this world a better place to live the "brotherhood of men" imagined and sung by John Lennon, which is much closer to our grasp nowadays than it was in the 70's. And it became closer for a number of factors, one of which is certainly CMC, a beacon for speech freedom and international unity.


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