Cogito Interruptus

Texting and instant messaging are the wave of the future? Scott McLemee is just too ecstatic.

August 20, 2008

Until quite recently, I did not know how to send a text message and was familiar with IM (instant messaging) only by hearsay. They seemed like things it was easy to get along without. As things stood, I was already altogether too readily available by e-mail. And my Bloglines account – which keeps track of digital content being put out by the blogs and news sources I've selected – was well on its way to its present level of 400 feeds.

Long before any of us started going online, Jean Baudrillard wrote about the “ecstacy of communication.” This was not as pleasant as it probably sounds. It referred to a state in which “the most intimate processes of life become the virtual feeding ground of the media” and “the entire universe comes to unfold arbitrarily on your domestic screen.” It is a new cultural scene that abolishes "the minimal separation of public and private," in which certain aspects of life were "played out in a restricted space.” Baudrillard, writing in the 1980s, was thinking of TV, which is hardly the "screen" that comes to mind now. Clearly things have gotten ever more ecstatic since then.

In any case, not being disposed either to text messaging or IM certainly did not mean living off the grid. I went through the usual struggles to maintain some degree of control over how much of my attention was consumed by “new media” (an expression that is starting to seem a little silly after all this time). Spending more than about 30 minutes online at a stretch tends to produce a condition in which my head feels like a Mexican jumping bean – my brain thrashing around inside its shell without much possibility of deliberate, purposeful motion. It is possible to minimize this distracted state through the practice of iron self-discipline. So one tells oneself while Googling “how to develop iron self-discipline.”

None of this is unusual, of course. Friends, relations, and colleagues report similar experiences. Nor is it necessarily a sign that the media are creating irreversibly stupifying effects. In my experience, it is still possible to have long spells of tightly focused concentration -- times when the flow of my attention to the work at hand precluded any distraction by email, or news updates, or what have you.

Or so it once seemed. Over the past few months, I’ve started to wonder.

For a while, it seemed like a generational thing.... The first text message came to my cell phone from a young political activist (someone born around the time this 45 year-old was first arrested at a protest) sending out a reminder about the location of a meeting. “Please respond if you can attend,” the note said.

Someone with the necessary skills explained how to type a response on my cellphone. I felt old. But it was a special nuance of that feeling – one that comes with learning to do something you understand to be commonplace, now.

Such reservations were moot. A few days later, another meeting, another message – followed by another, and another – all of it leading, in due course, to that moment of first seriously considering whether it might make sense to abbreviate the word “for” with the numeral 4 in the interest of saving keystrokes, which is not a sacrifice of standards I am quite prepared to make.

Around the time all this texting was beginning to grow routine and familiar, something else happened. The editor of a literary magazine sent me an instant message asking if I would be interested in writing about a new book. Once, this sort of inquiry would have arrived by e-mail, and I might have responded to it by picking up the telephone. Instead, the IM popped up on my computer screen as a little box – making a loud electronic “bing” sound as it did – and seemed to demand an instant reply.

What would normally have taken the form of a phone conversation instead took place at the keyboard. Over the next few days, the “bing” resounded several more times as other friends and colleagues started to IM me. (I had been contacted by one other person by IM about a year ago, but only noticed the message well after it appeared, and never took up IM as routine.) After nearly 15 years of coming to some kind of modus vivendi with e-mail and the Web, I found Baudrillard’s “ecstacy of communication” suddenly growing even more pervasive.

At one level, texting and IM are just slight variations on the now-familiar medium of e-mail. They tend to be even more casual -- without so much formality as a subject line, even -- yet they finally seem more similar to e-mail than anything else.

But now that e-mail itself is both so commonplace and so prone to abuse (“naked Angelina Jolie pics here!”), these supplementary forms have a slightly different valence. They seem more urgent. In the case of IM in particular, there is a suggestion of presence – the sense of an individual on the other end, waiting for a reply. (Indeed, the IM format indicates whether someone you know is online at a given time. The window indicates when a person is typing something to send to you.)

For anyone now accustomed to texting and IM – that is, most people in their teens and 20s – all of this goes without saying. And for lots of folks over a certain age, it probably won’t matter: the number of people in their social circles using these format won’t reach critical mass.

Those of us stuck in between, though, are left with questions about civility. Do you have to respond? How rude is it not to do so? (The other day, I ignored an IM from a friend and still feel positively antisocial for it.) Is it necessary to withdraw entirely from all forms of digital communication for a while, just to sustain, as Baudrillard put it two decades ago, “the minimal separation of public and private ... a restricted space”? And will withdrawal even be a possible, a few years down the line?


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