Pentti Haddington: The future digitalised world calls for wise decision-making

GenZ director and Professor of English language, Pentti Haddington, explains how interaction constructs our understanding of the world, and how digital technologies shape interaction in subtle ways. Read about his recent research inspirations, insights into the GenZ project, and more.
Professor Pentti Haddington
Pentti Haddington is a Professor of English language at the University of Oulu, and docent of multimodal interaction at the University of Jyväskylä. He is also the director of the GenZ profiling theme.

Interaction is at the basis of our reality

The GenZ project’s director, Professor Pentti Haddington, has a background in linguistics. Within linguistics, Haddington’s main interest has always lied in interaction – how people act when interacting with others, and how their actions reflect their understanding of the situation at hand.

To study naturally occurring, real-life interaction, Haddington uses an inductive methodology known as ‘Conversation Analysis.’ The focus of Conversation Analysis is on talk as well as gestures and objects, on top of all the resources that speakers may use to aid the achievement of mutual understanding, or intersubjectivity in conversations.

“The biggest reason for my interest in interaction is that I believe that we construct our reality and understanding of the world within interactions. Whether the context is a multinational crisis management training or interaction taking place in digital environments, how we interact and orient ourselves in those settings shows how we understand those situations,” Haddington explains.

“And when we turn our attention to the interaction happening in different contexts and settings, we ultimately broaden our understanding of those contexts and settings,” he adds.

The latter examples of such interaction contexts – multinational crisis management training and digitally mediated interaction – showcase the two main lines of investigation in Haddington’s research. His research focus is twofold, consisting of collaboration with the Finnish Defense Forces International Centre (FINCENT) and CMC Finland, as well as real-time interaction in different digital contexts, including immersive virtual reality (VR).

Collaboration with FINCENT and CMC Finland allows to give back to the community

Haddington and his research group in the PeaceTalk project have used video-based data to study interaction in crisis management training sessions. For example, they recorded interactions taking place in military observer vehicles, as the military observer trainees were patrolling in a simulated crisis area and completing the assigned tasks.

By doing so, Haddington and his group are trying to understand the practices by which the trainees accomplish their work as part of the training. They are also interested in how subtle changes in the interactions and practices between the trainees throughout the day might mirror the trainees’ learning. In other words, Haddington and his group are interested in seeing how learning is reflected in the interactions.

The collaboration with FINCENT and CMC Finland has now been ongoing for six years, and Haddington says that the project is overall one of his most fruitful research projects.

“This collaboration has been a great achievement for our team, and not only in terms of yielding publications and such, but also in terms of us being able to return findings to the crisis management community. Collaborations like these are not necessarily easy to carry out, and it is great that we have succeeded,” Haddington says.

“Interaction, as mundane as it is, is not necessarily something that the community members consciously think about on a daily basis. But we have been able to give them a chance to learn something from our findings, something that they can make use of in real life,” he adds.

How new technologies shape interactions

Haddington’s other research topic, VR and digitally mediated interaction falls under the GenZ project’s co-evolution theme. He explains that interaction is organised around certain universal characteristics, such as turn-taking practices, repair and sequences of actions. However, not enough is known about how digital contexts shape these features of interaction, and this is when the co-evolution theme becomes especially crucial in helping to shed light on how technologies shape everyday life in the future.

According to Haddington, face-to-face interaction and how it is organized is built around the possibility of people having access to each other’s talk, embodied conduct and shared multimodal resources. Shared access to these resources, such as gaze, gestures or objects provides the building block for achieving joint and mutual understanding of actions and activities in interaction.

However, digitally mediated contexts provide new resources whose role in interaction we do not know well, yet. For example, slight delays of the signal that transmits talk in Zoom or Teams can distort turn-taking in subtle ways, causing people to speak at the same time.

Recently, Haddington has coauthored an article with Postdoctoral Researcher Laura Kohonen-Aho concerning interaction taking place in VR.

“The achievement of joint and mutual understanding in VR can be different from face-to-face interactions. This is because in VR – and other video-mediated contexts – we may assume that the persons we interact with have access to and share the same interactional context as we do, when this is not necessarily the case. Asymmetric access to the situation influences the organisation and practices of interaction,” Haddington elaborates.

The GenZ ‘co-evolution’ theme as a source of inspiration

Overall, Haddington thinks that the GenZ project has provided great inspiration for his own research. The GenZ project has also strengthened his view of the importance of investigating real-time interactions in different digital contexts.

Haddington also notes that the core theme of the GenZ project – digitalisation – has become an increasingly important research topic in the University of Oulu’s Faculty of Humanities. Strengthening the human-centric perspective in digitalisation is a natural asset of humanistic research.

Haddington also values the multidisciplinary approach of the GenZ project. He thinks that it is important for researchers to step into other researchers’ shoes and try to understand what they are doing and why their research matters.

Future visions for research

In the future, Haddington would like to continue with his research on crisis management interaction. On top of that, Haddington has several ideas on how video-based data should be gathered in digital environments. He is looking forward to finding new solutions which could potentially help to solve research dilemmas pertaining to data collection in digital environments.

Haddington is also looking forward to the publication of two books which he has co-edited with his colleagues, including Doctoral Researcher Tiina Eilittä, Postdoctoral Researchers Iira Rautiainen, Antti Kamunen, Tuire Oittinen, Laura Kohonen-Aho, and Docent Anna Vatanen. The first one of these books deals with the concept of complexity in interaction, while the second one tackles developments in the Conversation Analysis methodology. Both books feature chapters by international top researchers in Conversation Analysis.

“The editorial team has met regularly over the past years, which has proved to be useful. Working together and intensive co-writing have been really educational processes. I am sure we have learned immensely not only about the topics but also about the writing process itself,” Haddington says.

The future digitalised world calls for wise decision-making

Overall, Haddington anticipates the world to undergo several changes driven by digitalisation. These changes will require people to learn new skills, including, for instance, critical thinking.

“I would advise everyone to adapt a critical mindset when using digital communication channels, social media or when reading texts online. We should always ask ourselves who has written this message and for what purpose, who is the target audience and whether we can trust this information,” Haddington says.

Haddington explains that AI (Artificial Intelligence, and most recently ChatGPT) can nowadays be used to quickly generate text which is not easily recognizable as being AI-generated. Being able to really read into the text critically is thus an essential human skill that should be emphasised.

Strengthening human-centric viewpoints and being able to pause and reflect are also the key aspects of the future world that Haddington roots for. We should not be so quick to jump on board with new manifestations of digitalisation, as we still lack some basic understanding of the role digitalisation in our everyday lives.

“For example, there are many assumptions and beliefs about how digitalisation may support learning and education. But we should pause and think carefully before we make hasty decisions regarding, for example, the digitalisation of education. We should really know better what works and what does not, for example, with respect to distance education versus face-to-face teaching in classrooms,” Haddington explains.

Digitalisation is here to stay, and it will continue to shape human life in a comprehensive way. This is why more research promoting the human-centric viewpoints on digitalisation is needed – including research on how digitalisation shapes interaction.

“Digitalisation creates changes, and it will also require a lot of wisdom from people to make the right decisions. Wisdom from teachers, researchers, politicians, organisations and employers. We have so many questions at the moment that we should really take the time to pause and reflect before we proceed,” Haddington concludes.

Last updated: 10.1.2023