Blogger in the Bathroom, or Blogging as Graffiti

Graffiti or conversation? Messaging or interaction? Which is blogging? Is it a form of writing or a form of talk?

We’re tempted and perhaps even required, by insufficiency of alternatives, to understand our new technologies and their forms of use by analogy to familiar activities. Technologies of communication, of course, are hence often compared to various kinds of realtime and co-present interactions, be it private conversation, (chit)chat, an announcement, what have you. The point is not what form of interaction do we think its technically mediated form takes; it’s that we lose something in translation if we refer only to familiar face-to-face comparisons.
Technology transforms, and we need to tease out the manner in which it transforms. The transformative operation that a technology performs (I’m not a determinist; in fact I think that culture anticipates its technologies before bringing them to discovery/market, to wit, the stirrup and the gun, neither of which were instruments of war in many cultures that had access to them) may be simple or complex. Most of the time that transformation is along a perceptual axis.
The magnifying glass amplifies along the visual axis (Marshall McLuhan wrote that all technologies amplify along one axis while bracketing along others, thus tunneling or focusing our experience by extending awareness just along the visual, the acoustic, etc.), the phone amplifies along the auditory, and so on. Those are the first order operations; second order operations are where things get more interesting. And to keep things to blogging, where I think we need to address a major oversight in our use of analogies…
McLuhan was famous for his (somewhat unorganized) perception of the social dimensions of technologies. Technologies, for him, conducted a two basic operations: each new technology referred to a previous technology as its content (tv referred to radio; film referred to theater), and extended our perceptual faculty beyond its normal physical power and reach. Note that the “content” of a new technology is not simply an earlier version. Viewed by McLuhan, or viewed sociologically, cinema is not a advancement of photography (which it is, of course, technically and historically speaking); it’s an advancement of theater. It was either Laurie Anderson or Brenda Laurel who remarked that “we go to the movies, not to the projectors.” Theater, as a form of expression that involved scripts, actors, roles, a stage, a non-participatory audience was extended as film. It’s no accident that the two use the same building. (Necessary aside Foucault would add here that it’s no accident the prison and the school use the same building!)
So, is blogging conversation? Though it looks more like graffiti in the bathroom (a mess of faceless messages half of which have been edited by somebody else, all written to be read, but happily free of consequence and accountability and thus tending to be heavily self promotional—in other words, names of bands)? No.
Conversation is bounded in space and time and to its participants, and blogging, clearly is not. Blogging’s one remarkable feature, in fact, is in its dislocation of speaker/hearer, or speaker/audience (true of graffiti also, so, point graffiti). Conversations are a focused and directed interacton/participation. Utterances are addressed to the company present, and a great deal of the interaction, both in content of what is said and in its meta-language, as well as in physical participation, is directed towards sustaining the engagement of all participants and thus caring for the group dynamic… Conversation involves facework about the face, in other words (the first words of conversation say it all: How are you?).
I would venture to say that blogging is not a form of facework. Also, that it’s not bounded in time and space in the way that conversation is. I think it’s more accurate to call it a form of talk, and then go from there in our efforts to be more specific. First, though, and picking up on the McLuhan trail again, to the modes in which the blog is a transformation. And I say this about all communication technology:

technologies of communication and interaction perform a temporal operation

This sneaks up on us because we tend to be visually inclined (as a culture) and spatially and object oriented. We like to see things and their relations in space (McLuhan claimed that Americans were visual culture; Russians, an oral/acoustic culture, and that our mode of spying on them was thus to conduct U2 spying overflights, their mode was to plant bugs and listen in…). Time is much harder to plot, but it’s there, and it’s the primary mode in which interaction technologies tear the interaction from its ground and foundation.
Technologies of communication, like blogging, IM (which is near-synchrony), email, message boards, what have you, “connect” people in spite of physical distance, and separate them in time. In two times, in fact: first, absolute (real, objective) time; second, subjective time (duration, lived time).
The first dislocation puts us out of step with one another, and is the reason that asynchronous communication technologies tend to have problems distributing or focusing participants’ attention to one another. We need to be face to face and thus in real time to pay attention to each other as people. Asynchronous technologies enable us to “talk” to each other, but not to attend to each other (in meta-linguistic terms; whether or not “attention” is a currency of blogging, of posting and commenting, is a psychological matter and one we can address separately, but I think the answer is smal attention but not ontological, or big attention, if you get where I’m going with that). This is one reason that chat rooms are filled with so many capital letters and punctuation marks: those are attention getting devices, facial or physical gestures, if you will, transposed to writing.
The second dislocation removes us from common time, and is, philosophically speaking, more profound. Sociologically speaking, it’s more frightening. We might be adapting to asynchronous interactions, to the practice of messaging, emailing, posting, etc, as a form of talk, and having little problem with it as a first order technology. But on the second order, where asynchrony and physical separation still the rhythms of shared, inter-personal time, I’d venture to say that we’re having a tougher time.
In fact our entire culture may be out of time, may be losing “good time” and “quality time” to the multi-tracked, discontinuous, and interruptive time that is the time of asynchronous communication. We pride ourselves on being connnected, and we get connected, presumably, to maintain our connections. We get in touch to be in touch. But connections facilitated by technologies don’t produce connection. Technology’s transformation is lost in the terminology. Analogy, which is a comparitive operation, doesn’t capture a dislocation-amplification-extension (which is what technology does).

My point—and I apologize for the length of this one, but it took a while to cover the technical and the social separately here— was that in understanding social practices in which technologies like blogging have become embedded we need to better grasp the manner in which a technology-in-practice amplifies and extends, how its operation intinsic to new second order social and cultural practices, and most importantly (because we see it so poorly), how it works with time.

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