Protocols of Improvisation and Online Communication

Marshall Soules, Ph.D.

Presentation to the Leading Edge Training and Technology '97 Conference, in Victoria, B.C. on March 18, 1997.

As someone exploring the use of instructional technology in the Arts and Humanities, I have found myself involved in an intriguing dialogue between technologists and educators. The widespread introduction of computing applications in the post-secondary curriculum is encouraging this dialogue, and we are presently engaged in finding a common language, a lingua franca. I hope to contribute to this dialogue by exploring online communication as a form of performance. It is not only performance, of course, but an understanding of online communication benefits from an exploration of its performative elements. If we examine the particular style of performance known as improvisation, we discover some interesting things about how learners perform with computers, and how we might design educational software and curricula with online components to support learners interacting in this variety of media.

Performance or Collaboration?

In a recent discussion on the Computer-Mediated Communications of B.C. listserv, I suggested that online communication tended to foreground performative aspects of teaching that many instructors have come to take for granted. I was thinking of my experience in a video conferencing project at Malaspina University-College in 1996 where the technology made me reflect on how I was communicating with course participants and support staff. The compressed video conferencing hardware, and the fact that I was interacting with two classrooms at once, required an awareness that I was, in effect, on stage. To give an obvious example: I had to learn (quickly) not to walk out of camera range or students at the remote site would be staring at a blank screen. The evaluation of this video conferenced project confirmed that student satisfaction and success were directly related to a sense of membership in the learning process (Soules, Enhancing Capacity with Video Conferencing, 1996). We found that instructors must work diligently to involve course participants in a dialogue through the interface of the technology. For the participants, then, this felt as if we were performing. Once we had adjusted to the formalizing constraints of the technology, we were able to have lively and creative on-line dialogues. When I noted this focus on performance to the CMCBC listserv, however, I prompted a response that the performing instructor up there on the stage was the old paradigm; now we were discovering that collaboration is more suitable to online communication. I couldnít agree more. However, I donít believe we need to set up a dialectic between performance and collaboration with respect to online communication. Both are necessary for successfully negotiating the human-computer interface.

Computers as Theatre

Before discussing improvisation and its protocols, I want to briefly review the notion of the computer as theatre articulated by Brenda Laurel (Computers as Theatre, 1992), and elaborated with various emphases by Sherry Turkle and AllucquŤre Rosanne Stone among others. As a software developer with Atari and Apple, Laurel draws on her knowledge of dramatic conventions to suggest that software and computer interfaces should be designed to involve users in the theatre of the electronic space and the action of its applications. She establishes a number of principles for human-computer activity. For example, she asks us to "think of the computer not as a tool but as a medium," to "focus on designing the action," and to "think of agents as characters, not people." (125-165) Such directives are based on Laurelís conviction that the design principle of direct manipulation of represented objects is not as involving as direct engagement in an activity of choice.

In her discussion of interface design, Laurel returns us to first principles:

The search for a definition of interactivity diverts our attention from the real issue: How can people participate as agents within representational contexts? Actors know a lot about that, and so do children playing make-believe. Buried within us in our deepest playful instincts, and surrounding us in the cultural conventions of theatre, film, and narrative, are the most profound and intimate sources of knowledge about interactive representations. (21)
Laurel considers human-computer activity as essentially dramatic, mainly from the classical perspective of Aristotleís Poetics. However, she also reflects on the role of improvisation within this model, and cites acting teacher Michael Chekhov on this theme: "Every role offers an actor the opportunity to improvise, to collaborate and truly co-create with the author and director ....The given lines and the business are the firm bases upon which the actor must and can develop his improvisations" (106). Laurel concludes that the "value of limitations in focusing creativity is recognized in the theory and practice of theatrical improvisation." This model of human-computer activity acknowledges the place of improvisation within a matrix of constraints.

Protocols of Improvisation

While the notion of protocols--rules of conduct or behavior--is familiar to anyone working with computers, it may seem inappropriate when applied to improvisation by those who believe that spontaneous expression has nothing to do with codes of conduct. However, as Michael Chekhov suggests, improvisation in acting occurs within a relationship of constraints defined by the script, the set, the director, and the other actors. Similarly, improvising musicians understand that their solos are made in relation to the playing of others and emerge from a thorough knowledge of the musical idiom they are playing in. In an excellent study of African musical style (African Rhythm and African Sensibility, 1979), John Miller Chernoff describes the importance of context to musical improvisation: "[S]tyle is another word for the perception of relationships, a dynamic aesthetic attitude which focuses the music on the occasion....The formal and traditional relationships are respected not necessarily because they contain any specific meaning but because it is the musical arrangement which provides the possibility for comprehensible improvisation" (126). Chernoff describes in detail the complex protocols of African musical performance that follow from this fundamental recognition that improvisation is all about communicating-- with authenticity and decorum--in a collaborative, social activity.

Blues and jazz idioms derive from this central principle that improvisation is a social act which allows space for individual expression. Jazz critic Albert Murray advances this notion in his description of the riff, a brief musical phrase repeated with subtle variations: "When they are effective," he writes, "riffs always seem spontaneous as if they were improvised in the heat of performance. So much so that riffing is sometimes regarded as being synonymous with improvisation" (Stomping the Blues, 96). For Murray, improvisation includes this "spontaneous appropriation" or "inspired allusion" as much as "on-the-spot invention." The creativity of these improvisations, however, "lies not in the originality of the phrase as such, but in the way it is used in a frame of reference" (96).

Improvising with the Human-Computer Interface

These fundamental protocols can be extended by analogy to online communication. Many of us have learned computing applications by the trial-and-error method. We recognize that the machine and its language impose certain, often considerable, constraints on our ability to communicate spontaneously. We have to learn the rules to play the game. However, even while we are learning these rules, we may be trying things that might work. Well-designed software doesnít penalize us for improvising in this ad-hoc way.

The educational philosophy of constructivism suggests that learners construct knowledge from authentic and relevant experience rather that accepting without question the teaching of experts, or the directives of a software manual. David Jonassen, author of Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking (1996), argues that meaningful learning is active, constructive, collaborative, intentional, conversational, contextualized and reflective, all of which can be stimulated by well-designed computing applications. Learners should be encouraged to explore applications because their sense of accomplishment and ownership of the process will be more profound. Courses and training sessions using online applications should provide clear guidelines and parameters but not specify conditions for interaction down to the nth degree. Participants should be allowed, even required to exercise a number of options for interaction.

Improvisational skills are directly applicable to participation in newsgroup discussions, synchronous conferencing, and e-mail use when we consider that these online activities allow individual expression--with rules of conduct, or netiquette--in a collaborative dialogue. I have seen many newsgroup discussions, for example, where the pattern of post-and-response appears to be spontaneously generated. The tell-tale angle bracket often marks the relative precision or intensity of this dialogue. An analogy to musical call-and-response is suggested in the following description by Murray: "Nothing is likely to seem more spontaneous than call-and-response passages, especially in live performances, where they almost always seem to grow out of the excitement of the moment." Murray suggests that no matter how deeply moved musicians may be, they must "always play notes that fulfill the requirements of the context, a feat which presupposes far more skill and taste than raw emotion" (98). This may suggest why online flaming can be so disconcerting: the formal constraints imposed by applications protocols seem deeply ruptured by extravagant language out of keeping with the general tenor of the dialogue. At the same time, the online medium seems to accommodate personal and idiomatic expression very nicely when it reflects the protocols of the dialogue. Murray claims that the blues or jazz musician is esteemed for an "idiomatic ease and consistency."

Spontaneous Prose

Under the influence of the bebop jazz improvisers, writer Jack Kerouac articulated a manifesto for improvised writing called "The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" (1958). Kerouac thought of writing as the quick sketching of an idea or impression held in the mind: "sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind" as the writer "blows" like a jazz musician on the subject. The importance of timing and authenticity discourages revision in spontaneous prose, and for Kerouac, such writing was confessional. In the final analysis, he privileges timing, rhythm, release, and honesty over craft. "Craft is craft."

Writing online--e-mail, newsgroups, synchronous conferencing--shifts some of the usual parameters we apply to writing. The importance of timing is heightened, sometimes in quite significant ways, as when someone expects an immediate response to maintain the flow of an e-mail exchange or a pattern of newsgroup call-and-response postings. While online writing applications usually donít prevent revision in the first instance, once the message is sent it enters the public domain as a kind of confession, or testament to the moment. There is often greater spontaneity and personal revelation in online writing than in the equivalent text-on-paper version. Electronic dialogues seem to encourage the use of idiom, colloquialisms, vernacular, and less formal diction and syntax because they approache an oral, conversational model where maintaining relationship is significant to the possibility of authentic expression.

Dialogism, Intertextuality and Hypertext

As George Landow points out in Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992), we are participating in the evolution of communication technologies which involve us in inter-disciplinary dialogues to an unprecedented degree. As educators and technologists seeking a lingua franca, Landow suggests that "we must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multilinearity, nodes, links, and networks" (2). He describes hypertext in terms of its "intertextuality," its ability to link blocks of text into a system of cross-references. The hyper-text, then, is not something we follow as a given construct, but something we navigate. In some senses, the reader becomes a writer of the text. Hypertext is, in many respects, a text improvised by the reader, a "readerly" text. Like jazz improvisation, it is a network of allusions and appropriations, repetitions with revisions.

Landow cites ThaÔs Morgan to suggest that intertextuality "opens up" the reading of literature (or of any discipline) by replacing "the evolutionary model of literary history with a structural or synchronic model" which frees the text "from psychological, sociological, and historical determinisms, opening it up to an apparently infinite play of relationships" (qtd. Landow 10). Earlier in the century, Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the dialogic, or multivocal novel, as exemplified by Dostoevskiís work. In such cases, there is no single unifying voice; rather, the text is a dialogue with its predecessors (in the literary tradition) and with itself internally. Since Bakhtinís original formulation of dialogism, this notion has been extended to apply to disciplinary traditions as a whole by Kristeva, Derrida, and Landow himself. Online communication is dialogic and intertextual in the sense that it is built up by many individuals as a conversation in text which can be archived to yield an expression of community.

Playing on the Threshold

At the heart of improvisation is the spirit of play. While there are many formulations of play, anthropologist Victor Turner has synthesized many of them into an elegant and robust definition which incorporates our current understanding of neurophysiology and cognitive lateralization. For Turner, when we play, we combine what we have at hand--the indicative "what is"--with the subjunctive "what could be" or "what if." We improvise within a matrix of constraints--such as the rules of the game, or the key of C#, or the given language of the machine--to create something new. We make paper airplanes.

In his wonderfully provocative essay "Body, Brain, and Culture" (The Anthropology of Performance, 1988, 156-178), Turner traces the similarity of play to the conventions of ritual, especially rites of passage--"[B]y definition ritual is associated with social transitions" (158)--and positions play cognitively in the limbic system. Here, play mediates between analysis and analogy-making, functioning in what Turner calls the "liminal" mode: "betwixt-and-between" other cognitive activities, mediating between the personal and the social, on the threshold of something new. There is something disruptive about the liminal mode since it questions the status quo in order to create a space for new social formulations. In Homo Ludens (1950), Johan Huizinga considers this subversive aspect of play to be one of itís chief social functions: such questioning ultimately strengthens consciousness of community, or "communitas" (8).

As a form of play, improvisation thus appropriates many of playís protocols, not the least of which concern the relationship of the individual to the community. Thus, jazz improvisation is a kind of technology of relationship, or a model of social interaction. Similarly, when we think of online communication in terms of the protocols of improvisation, we begin to appreciate the unique opportunities we have for integrating performance with collaboration. We may be encouraged to support meaningful participation and interaction in the learning process, to recognize the role of the individual voice in the communal dialogue, and to address the need for software and curriculum design which provide stimulating contexts for exploration and discovery. We are standing on the threshold of wide-reaching social change fostered by varieties of online communication, and we should be in no hurry to script the future into a drama that is all work and no play.

Marshall Soules.
March 1997

Top of Page