Thursday, 22 July 2010

Thinking, then, of tactility in the digital age. The internet brought us the ability to communicate, irrespective of geographies and without time restraints - it removed the journey from communication, allowing almost instantaneous missives.

But, of course, it was just words. Emails and IRC never broke beyond the written word (not even the spoken word). Voice over internet and even video-conferencing, brought its own problems to the party. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, predictively:

Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those caller who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress. (p146)

The issue we're left with is the contradiction that while the internet has accelerated communication and allowed us to communicate more frequently with a greater number of people almost simultaneously and in various locations, it has taken a long time enabling a version of communication as multi-faceted as the one we experience in face-to-face meetings.

For a certain generation, writing an email is similar to turning up to someone's door at 10 o'clock at night when you haven't seen them for three years. The formality, the effort, the potential for misunderstanding is in no way relational to the message they're trying to communicate. Communication technology, and the way we use it, takes time to evolve into a level of sophistication that we're comfortable with.

SMS was nearly abandoned as useless by early mobile phone manufacturers, but eventually became the de facto way of communicating – issues of intrusion and detachment coerced the mode of communication into certain forms which became standard. The different situations which require a call or a text or even a missed call, became encoded into the unwritten communication charters that vary hugely amongst different social groups and generations.

Some evolutions take us into roads of abandonment. The technology, despite being more high-tech than its predecessors, simply takes us too far, it can't be adapted or evolved, it stagnates and dies. Foster Wallace calls this “a queer kind of self-obliterating logic in the microeconomics of consumer high-tech.” (p145)

Returning, then, to tactility in the digital age. Why is it that some social networks stagnate and die?

Precisely because of this notion of roads of abandonment, of self-obliterating logic. Myspace simply became too big, too cluttered, too unrestricted and too one-dimensional to allow effective or personal communication. Others have other stories of failure.

Here, we also find the reason why Facebook has the market share it does. It has allowed communication on the internet to evolve, to become multi-dimensional and more human. There's the ability to poke (a virtual tactility that no-one uses for precisely the same reason no-one apart from teenagers poke each other in civilised society). A direct message is a conversation (a email, but threaded and in a friendly, connected context for those of use who receive mails into clients). A wallpost is a comment across a crowded room, amongst friends. Tagging a friend in a picture is the equivalent of mentioning someone in their absence and this being reassuredly relayed back to the person at a later date (“so and so was talking about you last night...”). Then there are the invitations, the likes, the recommendations...

Facebook's success is not so much built on the networks we're able to adopt, harness and communicate with, but by the means of communication within those networks, by its conscious-or-not attempt to supplement and digitise the nods, winks, hellos, conversations and relationships that it appeared the internet had stymied. They're not attempts to replace those human signals, nor simulacra – this is too simplistic and does not allow for cultural difference – but rather an augmented and complimentary set of engagements.

With that contradiction – the idea that technology enables connectivity but diminishes its dimensionality – dissolving into a more sophisticated method of communication, it is clear that the next generation of networks will succeed on their ability to develop and better the rules of engagement set out by the most recently popular networks. Privacy options, open-source and integration are all crucial but the race will be won by those who find the most possibilities for affect in digital communication.

(Thanks to kottke.org for hastening my quote search.)

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