Saturday, August 23, 2008

On Chatter

In Gulliver's Travels, the titular hero becomes so enamored of a culture of anthropomorphic horses (the Houyhnhnms) that he becomes downright misanthropic towards his own race. One of the things he admires about the horses is that they don't talk unnecessarily. When conversing with each other, there are many long gaps while the principles think of something worthy to say. A couple centuries before postmodern philosophers started to speculate that we have meaningless conversations simply as a way to fill an empty void of existence (an idea perhaps best exemplified in literature by the plays of Samuel Beckett), Jonathan Swift was portraying the inanity of what we would call "chatter."

Personally, I don't spend a lot of time bemoaning the existence of "chatter" in face-to-face discourse. I see empty verbal gestures as necessary scaffolds to deeper interaction. Sometimes (perhaps often) these exchanges die without developing into anything meaningful, but sometimes a dialectical pattern emerges. What Swift may have overlooked is that inspiration is unpredictable-- one is just as likely to pull inspiration from a casual remark made by another than through a period of intense internal rumination.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that we consciously engage in chatter in order to commune profoundly. I'm more sympathetic to the notion that we engage in the process as a desperate attempt to escape boredom or avoid what our culture considers "awkwardness." Whatever the benefits or annoyances of the practice of chatter, I simply can not fathom the kind of culture that Swift envisions.

However, one would think that if fundamental elements of the communication process were altered, the cultural rules that mandate "chatter" would be thrust aside. For example, if interaction were no longer in real-time, if principles were no longer encumbered by physical proximity, or if anonymity would be enabled between communicants, wouldn't we able to dispel the notion that any comment is better than no comment? Wouldn't we at last be able to, in some arena, to realize Swift's vision and reserve our ability to make utterances only for occasions when we possessed something worth uttering?

Of course, anyone who has spent any substantial time on Internet forums knows that "chatter" is exponentially more inane on-line than in person. This seems especially egregious to me when the sublime and the ridiculous are juxtaposed. For example, a youtube video of a terrific Bob Dylan 1976 live performance inspired these comments:

Trust me I know Bob thinks you are a JERK!
Yep, just talked to Bob a few minutes ago and he said to tell you he thinks you are a supreme putz!

In the realm of politics, we get these comments on an Obama speech:

This video still blows me away.
I guess ignorance is bliss if people like you want bush and mccain.
In the name of Allah,
Hussein Obama (our MUSLIM brother) to win.
I remember during the Cold War when various agencies attempted to bring together "average" Americans and Soviets for dialogue. I wonder what such groups think of these comments on a news report about the Russia/Georgia showdown:

maybe this sounds stupid but what if The illuminati are trying to make their one world government (new order) and Russia is on their way ? Maybe thats why whole west is against Russia in almost all cases ?!
You keep referring to Americans as yanks what are you some British royal blood prince, if so tell queen "hi" from me?
besides your outnumbered navy will freeze in north atlantic ocean...
USSR? Is that the soviet union or russia you are talking about. However strong Russia and China army is they will always be weakened by their insidious governments compared to the democratic USA. Democracy means many things but the way USA does it is way better than Russia and China. Georgia will win this war over South Ossetia in the long run.
USA ненавидят его, потому что они лежат alot общественности и делают войну для нефти., я надеюсь, что российские люди не ненавидят граждан США для действия кустарника к миру. потому что, если кустарник делает войну тогда, все мы умираем в мировой войне 3.мир от людей от usa может все мы жить в мире
At the end of his adventures, Gulliver chose to sequester himself from humankind, because his own people reminded him too much of a debased race in the land of the Houyhnhnms. Incidentally, it was Swift's term for this race that inspired a couple Stanford students working on an Internet search engine in 1994. Jerry Yang and David Filo could perhaps only guess at the appropriateness of changing the name of their project from "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" to "Yahoo."


Blogger Azor said...

gr8 job on this post azor

10:15 PM  
Blogger blip said...

It may be that this is the only intellectually honest position for a blog writer to hold...

8:38 PM  
Blogger thesincitymama said...

In my opinion, it seems to me that most likely just about everyone would agree that if a person such as myself might form an opinion about this particular piece of writing they might, and most certainly would, agree with me that you did a very, most assuredly good job.

2:48 PM  

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