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  • Kenneth Jacobs

Our New Norms Need Meaning

Updated: Jun 25

"Wanna Zoom?"

"How about FaceTime?"

"Skype is outdated, right?"


In any case, videoconferencing is the new norm. It is how we maintain social contact without physical contact. It is what we do while out of work, and it is not just talking. It is seamlessly edited skits, pranks, and challenges. It is gaming and eSports. It is whatever we can view, enact, and create through the medium that is technology.


There is real interaction––banter, play, praise, and disagreement––via these technologies. You get to know those on the other side of the camera, as you anticipate what they will say and do to make you laugh and/or cry. There is something there to be had, but its meaning can be fleeting if not lost on us completely.


In Experience and Nature, John Dewey defined our human acts by their consequences, or means-consequences to be more precise. Dewey emphasized the significance of meaning systems, which are the communicative acts that constitute a community. For Dewey, communication was what differentiated humans from their animal ancestors. Rather than act and react, humans judge and plan. Humans keep ends-in-view by denoting their own acts, their purpose, their means. "When appetite is perceived in its meanings, in the consequences it induces, and these consequences are experimented with in reflective imagination...


we live on the human plane..." (Dewey, 1958, p. 371)

On that human plane we do not respond directly to things per se. Rather, we respond to the meanings of things. While hunger is the cause for eating in animals, hunger is the cause for contemplation in humans: "Should I do take out? Delivery? Or maybe just eat from home?" Humans transform cause-effect into means-consequence relations, where the means is your contemplating dinner and the consequence is your procuring it for future ends in and of themselves. You don't just stop at obtaining the food; you eat it, you judge it, you talk about it with others, and you contemplate its worth as a satisfier for future bouts of hunger. Put simply, humans are meaning-makers. Dewey (1958) said it like this:


"For all the intelligent activities of men, no matter whether expressed in science, fine arts, or social relationships, have for their task the conversion of causal bonds, relations of succession, into a connection of means-consequence, into meanings" (p. 369).

We experience "relations of succession" in technology: in scrolling, in viewing, and in "liking." We can name the events immediately preceding our scrolling on Twitter (upon waking) or viewing on Twitch (after work). But if Dewey is right, and if it is the case that we convert these procedural acts––wake-tweet, work-Twitch, etc.––into means-consequence connections, then what is their meaning? To Tweet, Twitch, or Zoom can't just be habit, right?


What's the Reward in Sport if You are the One Whose Watching?


If you are not the shooter, the passer, the PLAYER, and ultimately the MOVER, then you are likely the viewer. There is pleasure in viewing, but you are not as passive as some might think. Mere viewing is not the end, pleasure, or reward that keeps us humans seated and sensing. Just as we do not stop at obtaining the food––as if it were the final end––we do not stop at watching. The media we consume are a springboard for thinking and associating with others. Spectators infer a player's strategy in light of an opponent's move. They predict that which a player will or won't do and even ask counterfactuals: "What would have happened if she had made that assist?" Moreover, we relate with others over these counterfactuals and we make a game of it in fantasy leagues. In fantasy you are the MOVER, a PLAYER.


The point here is this: There is meaning in our spectating, especially when it enriches our current means (from viewing) and consequence (to making viewing a game in and of itself). Experience is enriched even more, for example, when viewers can influence gameplay via livestream. Or in special cases, when gamers become the developers by "hacking" and changing the nature of the game itself––either to enrich its gameplay or to make gains at the expense of others. We are not passive in front of our screens, so there must be some meaning to which we can ascribe our new norms.



Once for Leisure, Now Routine


Our new norms, thanks to COVID-19, involve a lot of viewing! That viewing, however, as a consummation without constraint, has a dark-side. Just type "social media and depression" into your preferred search engine and you will see what I mean. Better yet, type that into Google Scholar and you can find the evidence for and sometimes against the hypothesis that social media can influence depression and other mental health concerns. When Dewey said that we endeavor to turn "causal bonds" into meaning, he was saying that we name the goods we value in order to pursue and procure them. Humans make meaning systems, then, to identify and transmit the goods we value. The general sentiment is this: "Let's have our social media, but minus the depression."


There is mundane routine in our phone-checking, scrolling, and swiping, and to have any purpose, its meaning must not be overlooked. Our new norms need meaning in the sense that they must be named in order for their consequences to be leveraged––to avoid that which is harmful in social media and to make MOVERS/PLAYERS out of viewers. The meaning of our once leisurely routines is not for the sake of pleasure alone, relief from boredom, or for the sake of living vicariously. The meaning of our viewing is in our conjoint activity with others. "Conjoint" is an important signification because it emphasizes the combining of two or more entities for associative activity. The associative activity being the contemplation, the judging, and the planning around a common interest! Even if that common interest is a game, it can very well amount to one that enriches all of our lives (e.g., the gamification of well-being). Again, though, to eat or to game is not the terminus. Any end becomes itself a means, especially when it is a common interest within a diverse field of associated activities.


Here's how Dewey (1958) said it:


"The end is then an end-in-view and is in constant and cumulative reenactment at each stage of forward movement. It is no longer a terminal point, external to the conditions that have led up to it; it is the continually developing meaning of present tendencies––the very things which as directed we call "means." The process is art and its product, no matter at what stage it be taken, is a work of art" (p. 373).

Even if during a pandemic, we can continually develop the "meaning of our present tendencies." At present, though, our tendencies are from a distance. Thus, making it more difficult to make-meaning after putting down our phones. Have you ever considered what you value within the medium through which you make your social contacts? What is the common interest and is it a "work of art", in progress, or is it just simple reflex––like a mouse who eats when hungry. Before COVID-19 we could see the progress of our associated activities in person. You could immediately see the products of our associated activities within a stadium, a church, a school, or your own neighborhood. To make and see those "works of art" today, we have to get more creative. We have to do more than just Zoom. Caremongers are a great example, as they have used social media to organize one another around a common interest: to provide mutual aide for those unable to leave their homes or unable to afford necessities like food. Their common interest is a work of art.


What, then, do our new norms mean?


The meaning of our present tendencies can be found in our conjoint activity around a goal. Furthermore, the meaning of our new norms must continually develop; like gamer turned developer and viewer turned player.


"The idea is, in short, art and a work of art. As a work of art, it directly liberates subsequent action and makes it more fruitful in a creation of more meanings and more perceptions" (Dewey, 1958, p. 371).

Art is the process of evolving our new social distance norms, and the work of art is any product that "liberates subsequent actions" and creates "more meanings and more perceptions." Rather than "fearmongering," for example, we might start "caremongering."

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