Saturday, 2 June 2012

Please turn off all devices

My thoughts turned over the week to email (sorting out the wife's new laptop) and text-messaging (the collected works of Jeremy Hunt). I was also struck by an article discussing the possible impact of the rumoured Facebook phone.

The Leveson enquiry has highlighted the pervasive use of text-messaging in government and lobbying circles, adding to the revelation last year that government advisers were using Gmail to conduct off-the-record conversations. These technologies compromise the democratic process by allowing politicians to side-step freedom of information obligations and bypass civil servants. The obvious lack of impartiality displayed by Jeremy Hunt would not have been seen in a minuted meeting.

There is unintentional humour in this as well. Not just the lack of familiarity with messaging conventions, such as Cameron's LOL fail, but the evidence that few politicians understand the technology and the vulnerabilities it entails. Stupidity aids accountability (you can bet that Jeremy Hunt won't be casually texting congrats to James Murdoch any time soon). There was also something amusing (in a stomach-turning way) in the chummy, arse-licking style of their messages.

The wider social role of a comms technology is not fully appreciated till it has passed its peak. I was reminded of this during the week by a discussion over why the The postman always rings twice (apparently it's when he needs a signature, such as for a telegram, whereas one ring means there's a letter on the mat) and the appearance of Saving Private Ryan (more telegrams) on TV.

It was only with the coming of the cyclops in the corner that cinema's social function was fully appreciated. During the middle of the 20th century, when most homes had too few rooms, cinema took on the role that cafes and pubs had provided in the 19th century: somewhere warm to go, somewhere to feel part of a group, somewhere to escape the tedium of family life. The raising of the legal age of drinking from 14 to 18 in the UK coincides with the spread of cinema in the 1920s.

It's hardly a novel observation that the selfishness that crept into western society in the 60s occured as the TV set became a common fixture. It wasn't just the advertising and the aspiration, but also the atomisation. This turning-in on oneself in the home was balanced by the role TV acquired as social glue, the "did you see?" conversational gambit. This was in turn undermined by the arrival of time-shifting VCRs and the proliferation of channels in the 80s. Perhaps in compensation, real-time event television seemed to become more important, such as key World Cup games and shared horrors such as 9/11.

The coming of email led to premature laments over the lost art of letter-writing (always a minority pastime), but most of the stylistic conventions of the letter were transferred straight to the new medium. Email killed post, not letters. An important new feature of email was cc and bcc, allowing a narrowcast to be opened up to a select distribution, so personal messages became more like memos and written language veered towards the functional and the abbreviated, IMHO. Inadvertent reply-alls were the chief unintended consequence of this, if you exclude spam. Meanwhile, much of the old impetus for discursive letter writing transferred to blogs.

SMS and the smartphone are now the major challenges to classic letter-writing as email and text gradually blend into a single medium delivered via an always-on device. Email on a PC will probably look quaint in 5 years time, like a dialup modem now. The use of a handheld encourages frequent short messages over anything more considered, preferably broadcasts. Both Twitter and Facebook want you to communicate with the widest possible group. With this polarisation between broadcast blogs and broadcast short messages, it looks like email will decline.

Perhaps the thing we'll miss most about email is the discrimination provided by the separation of to, cc and bcc. The problem with the future envisaged by Facebook and others is that the strength of a personalised online space is also a limitation. The provider has an interest in you congregating everyone you know in the one place, so maximising advertising/referral coverage. They don't want you creating multiple spaces to reflect your different interests. You are actively encouraged not to compartmentalise your online life. Also, your own virtual club, where you control the door policy, is nothing if not congenial, but this means you are not exposed to the wider world except insofar as it is mediated by your online friends. You lack the breadth of random stimuli and chance meetings that you get in "meatspace".

Paradoxically, many pubs and cafes now seek to attract custom by providing an environment in which you can create your own private bubble. Wi-fi is probably a good thing for a public space where you don't want to interact with others, such as the Tube, but it looks increasingly counter-productive in pubs. The coincidence of the banning of smoking with the arrival of free wi-fi swapped one anti-social activity for another.


  1. George Orwell would have a little smile.
    Cyberspace tells me that The terms "meatspace" and "meat world" are apparently derived originally from the science fiction novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, published in 1984.
    In the short to medium term the rise of the net looks unstoppable as we are about to get connected fridges, cars and other previously subservient consumer goods to further profile and track our every move. Our sons and daughters face the reality of a black box in the car before they will be allowed "Insurance". The logical conclusion I see is a future where the only socially acceptable activities will be those carried out with the aid of cyberspace, followed by rebellion. Is it time to wipe my Facebook profile now?

    PS It would be much better to have this conversation in the pub.

    1. Duncan,

      I’m always up for a beer. It’s how I pay my subs to the Pub Liberation Front.