Phatic systems in digital society

Victoria Wang, John Tucker

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In our contemporary society, phatic technologies routinely establish, develop and maintain personal and emotional relationships across time and space. This phenomenon is reminiscent of Giddens' 1990 concept of abstract systems – made of symbolic tokens and expert systems – that disembed and re-embed public and professional life. In this paper, we develop social theory that aims to provide a better understanding of the prominent role of phatic technologies in society. We proceed in three stages: first, we critique and revise Giddens' vague concept of symbolic tokens and its implications for timespace distanciation by introducing novel concepts from measurement science. This focusses on forms of information that are relatively precise and communal. Secondly, building on our new formulation of abstract systems, we propose new sociological concepts, phatic systems and symbolic indicators, to enable social theory to explore and analyse the rise of phatic technologies. The concepts focus on the personal and emotional. Thirdly, reflecting on the fact that our digital society is held together by software, we introduce concepts from theoretical computer science to relate the abstract sociological idea of phatic systems and symbolic indicators to the concrete nature of digital data.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)140-148
Number of pages9
JournalTechnology in Society
Early online date11 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • Abstract systems
  • Symbolic tokens
  • Measurement science
  • Phatic systems
  • Symbolic indicators
  • Abstract data types


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