Entering the Age of Transaction

We feel the heartbeat of Google and Apple and Facebook throb while visiting family in Northern California.

My husband and I take a short walk early every morning to find rich-roasted coffee and sweets before the family rises, and share good mornings with hikers, bikers and—no surprise—engineers.

We strike up a conversation with a retired engineer about media and identity, and ponder about what has altered the current state of communication.

When I teach introduction to communication I tell college students that communication folks define it as a transaction.

Transaction means that the sender and the receiver are engaged in an exchange, but the exchange doesn’t require symmetry or even reciprocity—just some sort of exchange.

A sender could take the form of a magazine article or a college professor.

That means a magazine article may be a passive sender, but it’s not without some influence.

Still: the reader may or may not engage fully.

The relationship isn’t—traditionally speaking—equal.

I think equality or symmetry is the essential point in our morning discussion.

For example, a professor expects to lecture to engaged students.

But the transaction is asymmetrical.

Let’s face it: the lecturer is center stage.

We all bring our baggage of expectations to a transaction, and there’s plenty of room for disappointment.

As a professor, I try to impart information, hoping students want to learn.

So you can see where I am headed: not all students have the same willingness, and the transaction can get…wobbly.

On the other hand, some students have expectations that their learning is the professor’s job—not theirs.

More wobbles.

As we chat over coffee and tea in a Bay Area bodega, we decide that communication symmetry—if there ever was such a thing—has shifted in modernity.

Although not all transactions are equal, we sometimes expect them to be.

The engineer recalls a woman who was flustered after a blind date—in fact, a date arranged by algorithm—perhaps because she and her courter had different expectations about the transaction.

Seems her fluster arose from his expectations of something more…transactional.

And that’s what encouraged me to reconsider communication theory.

Textbooks are clear: communication is rarely balanced.

But it’s also clear that propaganda doesn’t amount to brain-washing: people really do have agency in making their own judgments.

Textbooks have not kept pace with the internet and its effects on how we navigate communication in the Public Sphere.

It feels like there’s a disconnect between balance and imbalance, and expectations and rewards.

And the disconnect occurs at different intersections of the communication process—and not in ways that we expect.

So—if you are still with me—walk with me through the thoughts as I ponder the communication network’s nodes:

  • We muggles expect communication to be symmetrical
  • We are fine with asymmetry as long as we are the brokers of power
  • We get cross when we are subject to the asymmetry of communication when we feel we have less power
  • We are relieved by our own schadenfreude when we join our tribe in belittling others, particularly on social media
  • We hate being belittled on social media

These sorts of transactions seem fairly typical.

But here’s what missing.

Transactions on the internet-at-large, including social media, result in muggles losing power, despite the semblance of agency.

Consider the heterosexual dating algorithm.

The engineer points out the program is designed so that men are paraded for the viewing of women, who are empowered with making a choice that suits their (her) interests.

Let’s take a sidebar.

The central focus of visual communication in this case—the parade of dates—is framed through a male gaze: a theory explained by Laura Mulvey and adopted throughout communication channels beyond Mulvey’s fulcrum of cinema.

Our insightful breakfast companion adds a twist to the gaze offered in the algorithm.

In this case, dating choices are viewed through a female lens.

At first blush, this seems revolutionary.

Until we discover that the Female Gaze merely limits choices.

That is, her choices—which seem vast—diminish as the program “learns” her interests and adjusts the algorithm.

Choices begin to narrow.

The parade—witnessed through the female gaze—gets slimmed down to a manageable size based on a method designed to match like with like.

So, while women may feel empowered at their opportunity to gaze at men, and freely make choices about their eligibility, their choices become a function—not of their desires—but of the algorithm.

That’s because the objective of the algorithm is to discover the most parsimonious avenue to coupling.

It’s not about you: it’s about the machine.

But here’s another way to think about the transaction.

What if the programs—the algorithms—are teaching us how to behave?

Are we are learning—not just how to date—but how to respond to the programmable transaction?

We are being taught to “like” and taught to “retweet.”

And we are being taught how to select a mate.

We are being taught to read an article by scrolling and clicking through advertisements.

Philosopher Louis Althusser noted that we are seen and treated by others according to how they view us: we are treated as consumers, parents and voters, and we respond accordingly.


Thanks to the internet, those transactions reveal that we take an active role—we participate—in how we are framed by others (Althusser used the verb “addressed”), except that the “other” is an algorithm.

And the algorithm’s objective is to teach us how to adapt our behaviors to the needs of the computer program, and to make ourselves available to be active consumers.

We are no longer merely the subject of manipulation because we are leaning how to manipulate ourselves. ###.

Uncredited image from Consumer.healthday.com










About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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