In The Magical Realm
I have been reading books on philosophy and psychology and fanfiction on the web. I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading blogs on the internet, ranging far and wide. These things have become tangled and I think they are very much related.
My son has a friend that lives three houses away. He will text my son and arrange internet game playing. He won’t walk down the street. He won’t even use his voice on the phone. A text is preferred. I have been trying to understand this behavior, by reading.
This essay, like many of the other considerations of “the internet” by people older than 30 (or people raised in the manner of people older than 30), fails to check its very premise: that the internet is “not real”. That writing a text is somehow, magically, less authentic than, say, passing a note in class. Or even whispering in someone’s ear. That those of us raised online can’t decipher tone or feeling in even the most offhanded typing of our friends and loved ones. That our refusal to “use our voices on the phone” makes us emotional, social, even experiential cripples.
I understand the urge to simplify the new social experience this way, and at a first or even second reading it appears sound, but I deplore the almost flippant conclusions reached by our loving, well-meaning, but ultimately uninformed elders.
This assertion—that the Internet, text messages and so on aren’t “real”, that they somehow “don’t count”—doesn’t stand up to examination, except in the very biological, reductionist sense. If you stand on the belief in a sort of “chemical communication” between adjacent physical bodies, pheromones that somehow sign off on every human exchange face-to-face, stamping a big rubber [AUTHENTIC SOCIALIZING] on every bit of small talk, then sure. But what this steps over entirely is the fact that every mode of communication has its accompanying set of falsehoods, either in projection or perception of the message.
If a friend walks up to me in the street and invites me to a party the next day, my perception of the message benefits (in clarity) from the data contained in their tone of voice, their posture, and their cadence (for example), but suffers from the distraction of being outside, of being in a hurry, of having to pee, of being bored (these are my failings) and also of their lying to me, of their having a cold that makes their voice strange, of their being distracted by their own simultaneous experience there on the street. Each of these facets of the exchange are traded for ones of equal weight when the conversation is moved online. My friend sends me a text, Facebook message, wall post, or Tumblr ask, inviting me to a party. At once I am examining their message for clues—the lack of, or inclusion of capitalized letters, the use of specialized argots within our shared social group, the use of emoticons, injokes, or HTML formatting.
My ability to read—and misread—these clues is as robust, if not moreso, than when confronted with the same exchange in person. The message remains the same. My methods of reading it, of deciphering it, flow from medium to medium, but in no sense is the party invitation “less real” for having come via SMS.
The other issue here, which benefits the digital alone, is the ability to master your own expenditure of time. I just finished reading Ada again, so I’ve been considering Time for days. While my friend approaching me physically on the street is intrusive, in that we both must compromise whatever we are doing in order to fit the exchange into a sort of tyrannical bit of gristle between our separate Timestreams (not that my friend is intruding on me, or even I on them, but more that we both must see the chance to have this exchange about the party invitation, and then both must take it simultaneously in order for the conversation to occur, like two world leaders turning two keys on a nuclear launch authorization, or even a shuttle crew waiting for the right orbital window) which, briefly, allows us to talk. If my friend had sent the invitation via SMS, the message would remain perfectly preserved as it left their fingers, and crash on my shores intact, waiting for me there whenever I most wanted to read it, when I could devote the best eyes to it, when I could think about it most clearly. Digital communication, if not freeing us from Time, certainly lets out our leashes a bit.
To put it another way, digital communication allows my friend to communicate through time with me, which goes a long way towards making sure the meeting of minds occurs when both participants are at their best.
The original essay touches on this, but frames it as an “inferiority complex” issue, which leads inevitably to bullying and trolling, and that children like the author’s son cannot “handle” that the friend that lives a mere three doors down is “too real” to interact with. I think this is not giving the kid enough credit, when he’s clearly smart enough to take advantage of the flexibility in the new (and no less devoted) friendships of his generation.
And truly, the same things were said of the telegram, the telephone, the letter, the parchment, the clay tablet, the cave painting…