The other day at the redoubtable Snap Fitness I overheard a conversation the likes of which I’d overheard many times before. It went something like this:
x: If I want to talk to somebody, I just call them.
y: I know.
x: And most of the stuff people are texting, it’s just stupid. “I’m going to the grocery store, what are you doing?”
y: It shows a lack of respect, I think. To have all those things going at the same time.
x: If I’m talking to you then I’m talking to _you_.
It appears that these people did not recognize me, as they did not immediately solicit my opinion, which is a pity, because after a brief lecture I might have altered their world views.
A refutation, here, about what texting is and isn’t would be idiotic, since all but two of you know exactly what it is. But I will indulge in something slightly less idiotic and step back and speak more generally, prompted by this post of danah boyd’s, which is lovely and says exactly what a lot of people have been thinking for a while now.
People get fundamentally confused by new things that seem to be a simple extension to something they already know well. Like, a telephone conversation is a conversation that’s simply on the telephone, and an email is like a letter, and what’s different about having an iPhone is that now you can check your email on the bus. These things are usually true in the most uninteresting sense of ‘true’ but only in that way. Everyone knows this about some domains – we all know precisely how a telephone call is _not at all_ like having a conversation; how the circumstances are different, the acoustics are different, the feeling of intimacy is different, the logistics are different, the time commitment is different, the expectations are different, the physiological indicators are different. Yes, in both cases you are ostensibly ‘communicating’ but even the topics of communication are different.
So as it turns out, a phone call is really hardly at all like an in-person conversation. And nobody has the slightest difficulty in seeing that.
I am a mix of amused and frustrated that this insight, so respendant in other facets of life, cannot be extended to The Next Thing. Like text messaging; and Twitter; and all of that. Texting is not like a letter, only super short. The ecosystem of texting: its asynchrony, its low-commitment in time and attention for sender and receiver, its prevalence, its immediacy – all of this, and other stuff, combine to make it a whole nother thing. It _feels_ different; it gives rise to different sorts of interactions, which bring with them different benefits (and costs.) It’s like knowing somebody at church and also knowing them from playing basketball – neither version is the ‘real’ person. People go to church, and they play ball. Ball isn’t a weird version of outside-church where people run around a lot, and sweat, and Ryan Houle complains.
(Crap, I just spent a bunch of time explaining texting, which I said I wouldn’t do.)
Anyway. So extend the texting idea to what it means to sit through a meeting or presentation, to what a ‘presentation’ is, or what it should be, or what a fifty-five year old humanities scholar expects it to be vs. a thirty year old techno-sociologist or whatever boyd is expects it to be. Once you consider the interaction on its own terms, a whole new world of endeavor opens up, and it’s this that fascinates: the chance (or requirement) that technology offers us to re-imagine not only how we do stuff, but the kind of stuff we do, and what we hope to achieve in the attempt.