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Spilling coffee on your keyboard April 23, 2012

Posted by Mark Folse in Fortin Street, literature, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
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Oddly enough, this all started with a Facebook post about an online article on the pernicious effects of modern social media on conversation (really, more generally on people’s ability to interact with each other in recognizable ways, but I found the part about conversation the most interesting.

Once there were social media technologies that fostered something like real conversation even among folks like Ray and I who tend to be shy, especially in social situations full of strangers. Back around 1990 the main form of technical social media was Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). These usually consisted of a computer with a single modem, with software supporting a tecnically single-threaded conversation, although the posts could cover several separate conversations, rather like a group of people sitting around a table talking.

The beauty of such systems and social networks was that you typically had to be invited to join a BBS, a friend inviting you to a party where you weren’t going to know anyone else. One benefit for the shy among us is you didn’t have to size up the room, decide who you were going to talk to or follow your friend around like a faithful dog waiting to be introduced to people. You lurked a bit for a while, began to enter the conversations slowly, and over time found yourself a part of a genuine if very slow motion conversation.

Actually, BBS systems were at the juncture of old fashioned conversation and letter writing. Only one person could be on the BBS at a time, so responses were often delayed. People wrote longer, and more thoughtful messages. It encouraged a conversation with people not present that only the pre-telephone, pre-Internet generation understood: sitting down and writing a thoughtful reply. The BBS in my experience were not an entirely solitary exercise. Because a group of users grew to be friends over time, we would regularly meet in person: we would go to see a play in which the BBS owner was performing, or meet for drinks or to eat crabs in Maryland. The BBS environment fostered genuine connections, thoughtful interaction and in certain ways improved each user’s about writing craft, careful writing that today’s social media do not provide room for. It was as close to the genuinely epistolary as many people in the post-Baby Boom generations were ever going to get. The blog world can encourage thoughtful writing if the author chooses to use it that way, blogging become not a social movement but simply another publishing medium. Blogs once encouraged something like conversation in the comments section but blogs are rapidly being supplanted by systems like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter that have precisely the opposite effect on conversation and writing. Comments sections on most blogs sit empty, especially if you cross post to your Facebook and Twitter account.

Its possible that the detached, surface-obsessed and highly ironic writing of the emerging generation is influenced by their time on social media, but it is too facile to find one cause for anything. One could just as easily blame cable television, the feeling of connectedness to the world from the solitary comfort of one’s couch. Television has been a central, organizing aspect of casual social interaction for fifty years, providing a common subject for conversation among casual acquaintances and recently introduced strangers. Perhaps our social attachment to the television fosters young writers obsession with the surface as the expense of emotion. If your main source of news is John Stewart and Steven Colbert then the archly ironic could easily become a primary voice in writing and conversation. (To judge how ubiquitous television is, I just now typed in the single world Colbert into Google to find how whether he was a Steven or a Stephen. Apparently there are no other Colberts of note in teh world).

I don’t agree that the prevailing social media are diseases affecting society but tools. Young people (my daughter for example) mostly use text messaging to organize themselves socially, the way an earlier generation used the telephone. Environments like Facebook are only socially pernicious if the user allows them to supplant all other communication. Social media are a serious distraction from putting words thoughtfully on paper but are only harmful to real writing or conversation if you never shut the damn computer off, go out and look someone in the eye with the phone in your pocket (or better, off for a bit: try it; you will not die). You might even find yourself in a conversation with someone you know only as a Facebook friend of a friend if you encounter each other in the real world. We had to make this happen in the BBS world through what were called “meet-ups”, but the scope of friends and followers you develop online expands the possibilities for a chance encounter. Your mutual friend doesn’t even need to be at the party to introduce you, because you’ve already been introduced. Go out. Risk spilling coffee on yourself because you are so engrossed in an actual conversation rather than on your keyboard because you are trying to manage work, personal email and your Facebook account all at the same time.

Being There June 4, 2009

Posted by Mark Folse in Bloggers, cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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By way of Twitter, direct from the online site of New York Magazine, which I began reading on my Blackberry but finished on my desktop while a mail and file search absorbed my laptop, which never the less managed to chime and pop up ghost summaries of emails as the Blackberry pulsed to warn me of my next meeting, and topped like a cherry on a sundae with a picture pulled via Google from Flikr, comes this interesting article on what digital multitasking is doing to our minds.

I defy you (as the author does in his opening paragraphs) to read it all the way through, online, without stopping to wonder if someone has answered that email or topped your clever comment on Facebook. ——————————— Sorry, I had to stop and check the chime on my Blackberry, reserved for certain important messages. I’m back. I swear.

These are our Modern Times. We live in a world in which The Man has figured out how to speed up the virtual assembly line, and if we wish to maintain the lives we have grown accustomed to–pay the mortgage, educate the children, enjoy our few pleasures–we have no choice but to deal.

Our modern times–if we were to remake the classic film Modern Times today it would be a single, fixed shot of the eyes of Chaplin, the story told by scenes on his computer screen reflected onto the spectacles of our modern anti-hero, the only real movement would be by his eyes. Perhaps his hand would rise up to touch his Bluetooth headset or push his glasses back up his sweaty nose, but nothing more. We would tell the entire story of our modern times projected a few small pieces of glass to one man, alone, flashing by in a fragmentary mosaic. (Cue score of Koyaanisqatsi.)

Pistolette , who found this article, is rightly concerned with how this is all impacting us. I have not gone fully offline in a long time, but I used to envy a woman I shared an office with once who would take a week off every summer and go to a secluded cabin sans husband and children with a big stack of books. That seems idyllic to me.

I don’t worry too much about how all of this obsessive multi-tasking and media overload is impacting me. I work with a scattered team at work and having a rich set of channels to manage that life–email, instant messaging, wireless phones–seems to help enormously. It does require that I shut down some channels when I really need to focus. I moan that the firewall blocks Facebook and Twitter but its probably for the best.

I feel scatterbrained lately but that has much more to do with stress unrelated to my online life. Most people in New Orleans seem more scattered than people elsewhere, but living here where It’s After the End of the World seems to have that effect on people. It is not caused by a rich digital life but by the stress on the streets, in our daily life, not precisely post-traumatic because the emergency never seems to completely end.

In this one central piece of my wired life on Toulouse Street, the serendipity of the moment often informs what I write, and that is why this one paragraph in the long article jumped out at me. Read it and judge for yourself, but I think I will continue to both walk the streets of my city as well as wander the virtual channels of the Internet, drinking it all in and waiting for the intuitive flash of that bright moment in which we know our doom.

The prophets of total attentional meltdown sometimes invoke, as an example of the great culture we’re going to lose as we succumb to e-thinking, the canonical French juggernaut Marcel Proust. And indeed, at seven volumes, several thousand pages, and 1.5 million words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is in many ways the anti-Twitter. (It would take, by the way, exactly 68,636 tweets to reproduce.) It’s important to remember, however, that the most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.

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