Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Human Communication: No More Privilege

Last week was a first for this blog, as I received a comment on a post a couple years after the fact (and how ironic the comment was on a post unironically titled "The Most Boring Post Ever." Of course, that was when this blog was young and I was more self-conscious about its entertainment value, something that anyone who reads this now is undoubtedly aware is hardly a consideration anymore). Anyway, I guess I should say that I think it was a first, as I never go back and read comments on old posts, and wouldn't have been aware of this occurrence had the commentator not alerted me to it in an additional comment appended to my most recent post. And though I could dismiss the entire incident as a trifling aberration, I actually find myself attaching great importance to it.

To be clear, any personal significance of this event is fleeting and nominal. I do not flatter myself into thinking that the words on this blog have any great potency to consistently exert influence across time. But the mere fact that on one occasion it did, portends to me no less than a new epoch of human communication. And though it might seem beyond trite at this point to speak of the revolutionary powers of technology, I hope it is worth the indulgence if I am specific about what I am seeing being revolutionized.

The somewhat infamous twentieth century philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that we think in binaries, and that we privilege one side of the binary over the other. He observed that in communicating with one another we privilege speech over text (that we tend to write to someone only because we cannot speak to them in person), that we privilege presence over absence (we are more likely to interact with those in front of us rather than those out of sight), and that we privilege the present over the past (we are more likely to respond to something that has just been uttered rather than a remark made ten years ago). And though this may have been the case from time immemorial up to and including Derrida's days, I think it is rather evident that these binaries are, if not deconstructing, at least cracking.

Though I have never engaged in the activity, it is my understanding that for many people, particularly the youngest among us, it is in no way considered aberrant to send a text message to someone in the same room as oneself, not as a substitute, but as an alternative to speaking verbally. And when the same device offers the option of contacting another either verbally or textually, the textual is increasingly winning out. So much then for the historic privileging of speech over text. And as any teacher has become all too aware in recent times, the same technology has allowed an absent person to supplant a present individual in one's attentions.

But what last week's comment helped me to consider was the possibilities with which the present might be losing its grip over the past. To be sure, one could always hold conversations with others over previous statements, and in particular, previous writings. A canon of ideas has remained in-tact for centuries, allowing generations to wrestle with and engage with the ideas of antiquity. But what is different now is that an off-hand utterance has a much greater potential to ignite after lying dormant for untold periods of time. And even more exciting, there is a greater potential for anyone to engage with the author of an utterance, since not only is the presence/absence binary dissolving, but the privilege of familiarity over unfamiliarity is compromised by technology (as we are now living in a world in which it is not uncommon to "friend" people we have never met). And in a paradox that Derrida would have enjoyed, even though the practice of digitally encoding an utterance offers an added permanence, it also makes our statements more ephemeral; just as easily as a statement can be preserved, it can be re-visited and modified on a whim.

So what does all this mean? I have no idea. Maybe in a few years I will come back and edit this post and make it appear that I could see the implications of these historic binaries shifting. But next week I will further explore the idea of the breakdown in the perceived relationship between past and present, and what potential could exist for the news media to adapt to a new set of perceptions.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

I don't know what it means BUT I am sure you will tell us your interpretation the first chance you get...

9:11 PM  
Blogger What's in a Name? said...

Were you in the pre-1800s Brit Lit class where we discussed "Pamela" -- how the author kept revising it and publishing new editions based upon criticism the book received? Not the same thing ... but maybe a shadowy precursor to this phenomenon.

11:19 AM  

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