Awkward incentives to communicate

from this post by Will Davies.

Mobile telecom companies … are so culturally pernicious because they are effectively flogging language itself. In an age when there is scarcely any limit to what can be mediated, and where or when it can be distributed, there is no relationship or artefact that isn’t on sale at your nearest Vodafone stockist. Your granny, Coldplay, BBC, work, dating are all part of the package. It’s everything.

As the scarcity of Everything gradually wanes, the companies are becoming bolder in their branding of the infinite. T-Mobile now has an advert asking ‘What would you do with limitless texts?’ with a photo of a happy punter saying things like ‘I’d text everyone I know and put together the world’s greatest super-group!’ (sorry??). Infinite opportunity to say, share, broadcast everything all the time anywhere has to be sold as a positive achievement, with a tangible result. But the truth was sitting across the aisle from me on the 15.03 from Birmingham: a restless child, pawing at a toy which promised everything and delivered scarcely anything…. This isn’t progress.

When communication itself is the product, what is communicated is irrelevant, abstract, all the same, all commensurable to the units of communication being traded. And an incentive is generated to spur communication for its own sake — noncommunicative communication that doesn’t facilitate understanding but necessitates more communication — and this incentive embeds itself as ideology and finds its way into our reflexive subjectivity. We all suddenly feel like it’s who we are to want to be “creative” and “share” so much online.

Davies looks at this through the lens of “economy of presence” — telecoms have incentive to encourage us to choose to communicate with people who are not present, because they cannot monetize unmediated conversation taking place face-to-face. “The mobile phone company’s task is to convince us that moving more of our lives into the column entitled ‘Different place’ is a form of liberation.” It does this by making mediated sociality seem more convenient — it flatters us, telling us we are too important and to have our individuality or our schedule compromised by the ardor of reciprocal conversation. Direct human interaction is figured as a de facto nuisance.

Its success at accomplishing this is testified to by our willingness to mediate more and more discourse in the name of it being more convenient because less reciprocal. The media companies sell us the ability to opt out of conversation and make discourse entirely asynchronous, on-demand — akin to time-shifting television consumption. We start to consume conversation as though it were television; it becomes less spontaneous, more geared to our entertainment, otherwise we reduce it to the bare minimum: a text of “k” to confer agreement, etc.

The last hill for telecoms to conquer, Davies argues, is the nostalgia for actual presence: the feeling of “I was there” when something momentous occurred: “The ‘But I was there!’ plea is an attempt to cling to something that cannot be watered down and rendered worthless by over-production.” Despite the ideological snow job, we still yearn for presence, for the limits on time and space that provide an aura of meaningfulness. This reminds me of a passage from Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses in which he comments on time-space compression but views it as an enhancement of vitality: “we get a childish pleasure out of the indulgence in mere speed, by means of which we kill space and strangle time. By annulling them, we give them life, we make them serve vital purposes, we can be in more places than we could before, enjoy more comings and goings, consume more cosmic time in less vital time.” It turns out that “vital time” is a real constraint that when superseded, empties cosmic time of its textural richness and fills it with abstract experiences to tally.

To preserve vital time in the face of telecom advertising hype and a general ideological climate that celebrates accelerated cultural consumption as an end in itself (more=better!) Davies advocates resistance, deliberate slowness, complexity, difficulty — anything to interrupt information processing and invite contemplation and co-presence. But the increasing ubiquity of devices and connectivity militates against resistance. Davies notes that it even colonizes the simple pleasure in being there, transforms it into a mediated pleasure of announcing one’s presence.

With telecoms inter-woven with everyday social life, be it long distance or otherwise, all varieties of space are being marketed. We’re cajoled to relinquish our enjoyment of just being there, and when we refuse, we’re sold a new package which allows us to shout ‘but I was there!’ It’s suffocating.

That is Foursquare in a nutshell.

Gadgetry offers undeniable convenience but masks the price we must pay in surrendering nostalgia, contemplation, rich experience. Not only that, but widespread gadgetry adoption creates network effects that make not having gadgets more and more socially isolating; thereby tech holdouts are coerced into adoption themselves. As long as resistance leads to social isolation and loneliness, it will always be futile.

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