Pushing the Distribution Model to its Limits: Distributed “listening” in a Helpline

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Our case study explores the extent to which a “Distributed Cognition”-like ethnographic approach can be used to analyze situations which are not at first sight compatible with the precepts of computational cognition. In the first part of the paper, we analyze the collective listening of phone calls in a helpline. We show why collective listening can be considered a “distributed collective practice”, with a mode of coordination based on repeated verbal re-enactments of difficult phone calls, rather than upon the discrete computational steps normally assumed in the standard model. In the second part of the paper, we analyse the organizational and interactional learning which takes place when collective listening is re-mediated by using e-mail exchanges rather than telephone conversations to communicate distress. Our conclusion discusses critically the viability of the distribution model in a context of collective listening.