Saturday, March 15, 2008


the bit below from sarah ruhl (which is only one little bit of a larger article in this week's new yorker on her fine plays, which mostly have nothing whatever to do with technology) probably struck me so forcibly because i had just consulted my cell phone bill, and in the 29 days of february i sent and received a total of 587 text messages. that's far less than what some of my acquaintances manage, far less, even, than what i pay to be allowed, BUT!: holy shit, am i being irrevocably sucked into the device paradigm?

some of my friends are aware that i have rules about text messaging-- or, rather, ideas about what constitutes appropriate content. technically, there are two categories that are allowed: (a) making and confirming plans, and (b) mild flirtation, with occasional forays into sexy. but the "rules" aren't actually that strict-- they're just meant as general guidelines to keep me as far as possible from what i think of as inappropriate content-- namely, anything difficult, complicated, or passive aggressive-- nothing critical, or meant to explain my feelings in some way. if i'm going to say something critical or something about my feelings, then all of the following things are probably true:

(a) saying it by text is likely to foster misunderstanding. it's a complex matter, and it will take some degree of effort and subtly to be correctly understood even with the added benefit of body language, vocal nuance, and real-time exchange.

(b) saying it by text is probably cowardly and/or lazy. communicating feelings and criticism is hard. it's hard hard hard, and it should be. any technology that makes it easier to say hard things by putting distance (physical, emotional, or any other kind) between the speaker and the spoken to is a heady and dangerous thing. we can kid ourselves into thinking that the effort we're saving by texting is just a matter of mundane convenience, when what we are really (or also) avoiding is experiencing the full weight of the things we say, and feeling directly accountable for them.

(c) if i say it by text, it's more likely to be something i regret having said. these rules aren't just for the sake of my friends, they are totally self-protecting. some things are hard to say because it's a mistake to say them, and you know it. is there anything worse than having to live with what you said and shouldn't have? oh yeah-- when it's recorded somewhere for someone to read over and over again! and texts are the worse, because most people have their phone with them all the time-- when they're drunk, when they're sad, when they're angry-- all sorts of compromised states in which one is likely to say what one will regret. oof. terrifying.

technology abridges effort-- saves us work. that's what it does. that's why we like it. work builds muscles, and it builds calluses. there's no one thing that this means, it's just that there are some muscles and calluses (literal and metaphorical) that i don't want to wake up one day and realize that i've lost or never built up. there are things that i owe to myself, and things that i owe to others, and most of it's played out in small ways on the daily-- if i have rules, they're rules of thumb, devices (!) that i hope will help me navigate.


Jane said...

I think I read the profile on Ruhl the same day you did (judging by the time stamp on your first post about it). That remark of hers struck me, too, and I found myself wanting to argue with her, that our uses of devices are not only alienating.

I agree with your point "c" here, and it reminds me of one of my rules of thumb: only say in e-mail or text what I would say in person, even if it's the hard stuff, even if it's feelings. However, it's not an absolute Rule, it's a guideline. I've gotten some messages, from my children especially, in which they say the hard stuff that they need some practice in saying, and then that text or e-mail message becomes the beginning of a conversation. I have actually "talked to" them via a device, and quite intimately, while we're in the same house! These topics usually have something to do with growing up.

And yet I find it personally saddening when, at school, we walk out of class and students immediately get on the phone and start talking to someone far away, when they could be continuing a conversation with the person next to them. Of course, I have no idea if they'll continue that conversation with their classmates later, over dinner. I only see what I see.

One thing I like about blogs -- are they part of the device paradigm? -- is that I get to read my friends', and that makes me feel part of an on-going asynchronous conversation, even if that conversation occurs indirectly, and even if it leads more to conversations in my head than ones between people.

Oh, I don't know. Like anything from any time period, this is complicated.

Lowry said...

I'm glad I read the Wikipedia link about "device paradigm." It seems to me that I could use this notion in my project, as in, water seems to be perceived by us as a device (analogous to central heating) and I am trying to see beyond that and engage with it in a focal manner.

laura.g said...

jane- i agree that technology, particularly communication technology, can be used in ways that are more or less positive, but it still seems to me that devices have natures, and that their natures tend to lead us (all of us) in certain directions.

it's true that people with certain good qualities will use certain technologies in more responsible ways. i also think it's true that some of the work (physical and otherwise) that devices abridge are just a waste of time, and good riddance. but i also think that it's going to be really hard to sort out in advance the waste of time efforts from the important ones, or to try to address critiques of technology only to the worst offenders.

what i liked about ruhl's statement of the problem is how she mentions that we won't even understand how we're being changed. this is pretty much spot on what LP seems to be talking about in his recent comment on another post-- how we don't realize what we don't know until disaster strikes.

so my somewhat modest critique of technology (especially communication technology) is that it changes all of us at least a little, and it's hard for us to know how. i also think that we are in a particularly bad epistemic position to critically assess something when it's here and making all of our lives easier.

bigger picture: i think that people mostly want two things- ease and satisfaction. i wonder about how these things do and don't go together.