Thursday, 10 March 2011

New article for Sublime magazine (draft - comments?)

The Naked Truth

Imagine by some future quirk of human evolution, telepathy is a reality. But there is a twist. Rather than hearing others’ thoughts in proximity (as if they were auditory, and hence limited by the same physics), we would filter out very large parts of what everyone else was thinking, and only hear others’ thoughts (from anywhere in the world) if they were about us.

You’d think it would be the death of indiscretion? But quite the opposite. Because of course, if you think about it, I just described one of the many stubbornly strange features of social media. Let me explain or elaborate, through some typical examples:

- - yesterday I sent a Tweet, asking if anyone else had the experience of making an important business pitch from a train toilet (because it’s the only place where you can both be discreet, and hear the call)? At the time it struck me simply as an amusing new variant on the idea of the “elevator pitch”. But then today my business partner asked me about this. Because my Tweet was in the name of my start-up, and we have Google Alerts. Lucky I suppose at least that i didn't name the client!

- - a few weeks ago, I read a Tweet by a respected author, asking if anyone else thought the main idea of a (well known, current and successful) book by another respected author, was insubstantial and transient? Yes it’s very standard bitching. He probably didn’t even mean it as personally as it sounded. But my very first thought was – oh my god - that thanks to Alerts/Tweetdeck/PR monitoring she would have undoubtedly read his comment too.

- - some years ago, when blogging was at a similar stage, I wrote a light hearted post complaining about the demise of the seriously mad 1970s self-help scene (Est, rebirthing and similar) dwindling, in my view, to the half hearted, lifestyle pap that was “Psychologies” magazine. And of course the very first comment was from the editor of Psychologies, herself: wondering if I had read it, or was qualified to cast such aspersions? (Fair point).

It’s all a bit like the scene from the Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall”: where Marshall McLuhan - playing himself - is brought into an argument between Allen and someone who had been pontificating loudly about McLuhan’s work (in the queue outside a cinema). “If only life were like this” comments Allen as McLuhan won the argument for him. Although the line from this scene that sticks with you more is probably “Oh, for a sock full of horse manure”.

Being confronted by who you detract is some kind of defining dilemma of social media. “On the internet no-one knows you are a dog.” They used to say. Whereas now, in web 2.0 it's more that: "anyone instantly knows if you call them a dog"?

I suppose it is a matter of habits catching up with a new quirk of social communication? Either we will be more honest, or more guarded, who knows?

But what about the generalised effects of sharing private thoughts so publically? Is it changing the nature of our discourse, our culture? Making us more emotionally explicit. There are theories that Facebook is making the English less reserved, and making men less prone to hiding their feelings. Research into social media like Facebook shows that being single will incline people to reveal significantly greater quantities of personal information. Other research into the phenomenon of couples who met online shows it is a media almost perfectly adapted to the process of falling in love (because it accentuates positive projections - like "we are so alike" - while providing fewer of the bubble bursting cues and clues we get on meeting in reality). Russell Davies complained about this to me once - that his global team meetings on (the then new) Second Life were always haunted by the suspicion of flirting. Is that it? Are we inadvertently using "love letters" as a medium for other purposes? Russell will no doubt pop up to comment!

It may be just me. But when I sat down to write “an article” some years ago, I’d never have dreamed of using the word “I”. Let alone revealing personal details. Now I write as I blog. As a form of thinking aloud. And I assume you - the reader - are used to being addressed in this way. So that our communications are more personal, one to one. Am I right? Is our discourse becoming more intimate? In the online edition, perhaps you too can comment and let me know?

Back at Marshall McLuhan, I rather doubt that the medium is the message. I tend to think that the media are only partly instrumental – expressing (rather than ever entirely causing) some broader trend, some pattern or reconfiguration. That the Romans made the roads more than the roads made the Romans. (The proposition that sticks in my mind from his famous book being that “the radio made Hitler” – as if economic depression, radical right politics, scapegoating mechanisms writ large and other factors played no role).

I would hazard a guess that we have been drawn to the precise modern forms of social media – including this "directed telepathy" and their general broadcasting of our inmost thoughts – by some cultural tide. It might the radical loneliness of competitive individualism (where everyone is a pseudo pop star and hence no one feels that they have any real friends)? It might be that we are evolving into Rifkin’s “Empathic Civilisation” (which I discussed in a previous column)? It might be something more enigmatic. A re-emerging small world consciousness that’s reviving something like a palpable sense of "Fate"?

I suspect that personally - cultural trends aside - it’s also simply good to blurt every now and then. Even if occasionally embarrassing, or humiliating, for ourselves, or others. There’s something healthy and wholesome and right about speaking the truth. Not the factual truth. Nor the kind of truth that is deployed in “feedback” to curb or manipulate another. But the sort of objective, emotional truth – often, a shock of self recognition – that you find occasionally in movies, and poetry and glances in the mirror.

I have no idea why I would tell you all this. I'm just thinking aloud. But then again, isn’t that my point?

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