Monday, August 10, 2009

Binge Thinking

I know you've got something interesting to say and I’m here to help you say it in a fun and compelling way.

Describe one of your most pleasant surprises. Go on. What three songs are on your summer soundtrack? Which could you spend a whole week in: a treehouse, a tent or an underground bunker? You're stuck on an island with plenty of food, a companion, and a relatively stress-free lifestyle. What do you say when the rescue ship comes?

All these conversation starters are care of Plinky, a new-ish social networking tool whose self-styled business is ‘Inspiration, delivered daily’. Kind of like the Holy Ghost, except in that it doesn’t honour the Sabbath. If you sign up for Plinky you get one of these prompts every day of the week and in providing your answer join others who are doing the same, thus alleviating the world’s dangerous shortage of mindless chatter. For Plinky abhors a vacuum.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497-98.
They are from left to right Death, Famine, War and Plinky.
It is difficult, not to mention terribly unfashionable these days, to paint such things as anything other than innocuous pastimes at the very worst. Suggesting anything more sinister or culture-damaging would be like railing against the entertainment industry, or reality television, or television full stop, which opens you to countless and often not unfair charges of elitism, of not getting it, of being nostalgic for old days that weren’t all that good. We’ve gotten quite adept at unpacking the assumptions on which those critics tacitly rely, yet it helps that those same critics in the main aren’t as serious or able as Neil Postman: they really are nostalgic, they really do not get it. None more so than this guy. But for all the buzz-like intensity of the debate surrounding social networks, I don’t think we’re asking forcefully enough the questions of media ecology that Postman no doubt would insist that we ask: what kinds of conversation can be had on these networks? Who’s empowered to speak, authorised to say what, enabled to criticise which institutions and whom? To which I’d add: does the multiplication of voices and the multiplication of utterances really amount to a democratisation of speech, or is there a point where the returns not only diminish, but begin in fact to unravel?

It’s hard to defend Plinky on any of these grounds. Answering one inane question per day, being pushed into pontificating in unison with others under such prefabricated constraints would hardly fit anybody's definition of empowerment; and what kind of value would you yourself or anybody else assign to the word count thus generated? But mostly I want to direct your attention to the demand for constant participation, brilliantly summed up by one of Plinky's rolling slogans.

Silence is the enemy of commerce, and so many attempts to monetise the Internet depend not on the quality, but rather the quantity of interactions, as translated in page loads or ad impressions. That's why it doesn't pay for Plinky to give you so much as a day off a week. But the site’s creators also know that we are liable to ask for that push ourselves, actively seek ways to participate well beyond the point when we ceased to have something to say.

There is a rather wonderful image I recently came across thanks to punster-poet extraordinaire Ian Dalziel, a member of the Public Address community, inspired in turn here by this effort of Emma's and that I've adopted as the title of this post. Ian is the originator I'm going to credit and whose permission I asked for and kindly received, but of course I wasn't surprised when Google informed me that the phrase binge thinking had had other inventors, for it's just too perfect, too apposite, so the culture was bound to have stumbled upon it before, and it will keep finding it again and again. Each time it will be an original discovery, and another sign of how self-reflexively the Web operates, how conscious we all are of the potential for near-infinite expression and of its flipside: the surplus, the excess, the likely addiction.

Plinky asks for your attention on a daily basis and the infinitely more successful Twitter too, strictly on an opt-in basis you understand, offers to ‘nudge’ you via cellphone if you haven't contributed to the site in the previous twenty-four hours. On the face of it, the two services in fact have a lot in common:
Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?
As mission statements go, this is eminently mockable, and so the commonplace mockery goes more or less like this: why should I, why should anybody want to keep their friends, family and (urgh!) co-workers abreast of what they're doing, frequently and quickly? Are we so vacuous and self-absorbed that we need to chronicle the humdrum rhythm and gestures of our lives, inform the world that we are catching the bus, choosing new shoes, worried that it might be about to rain? Not even Clay Shirky himself would manage to make it sound so despairingly pointless and boring.

But even to the casual observer Twitter is obviously so much more than that. I could do all manner of knee-jerk theorising here, call it a Foucaltian nightmare of diffused surveillance and self-surveillance, the fissure that precedes society's Final Crumble, or the din before its Final Rumble. But it's not Foucault, nor is it Orwell. It's Georges Perec, it's James Joyce: a formally constrained collective stream of consciousness, the simultaneous projection of what everybody, or as good an approximation thereof as we are capable of producing, is doing, or thinking, or purporting to do or think. I'm not particularly interested in being on it, certainly not at all interested in letting friends and family etcetera know in real time whether or not I'm picking my nose at any given moment (hint: I probably am), but I'm also pretty sure I could spend my life reading the #Iremember topic alone. And I'd have to, really, in its trend-topping heyday eight weeks or so ago it was growing at dozens of tweets per minute.

'Burning bus during Iranian elections 2009'
Photo by Shahram Sharif licensed under Attribution 2.0
That is it, the binge, right there. And then came the elections in Iran, and suddenly it all became deadly serious, and we all changed our location to Tehran, and it seemed that everybody already knew what to do, how to organise, as if the months spent talking about your Friday night plans had been a rehearsal for that moment when being good at Twitter was going to save lives, or so it seemed. And it's all there, documented, trickling in now but still ongoing. I did a little sampling a few weeks back, precisely between 7 and 8 pm on June 22nd, NZ time: far from the peak of its intensity and when it had in fact been surpassed by #iran as the top trending topic, #iranelection still generated 114 tweets on the first minute, some 7,440 in that hour. It will be a while before anybody could, supposing they wanted to, catch up on the topic, read it whole, as a single continuous historical document of a not insignificant moment in time.

Of course, in the din of the moment, it's not how you do it: you need to find yourself a super-reader, somebody who's following the right sub-set of participants, those with the most meaningful and relevant information, and there lies a point I shall return to in the next couple of weeks: that by far the best search engine on the Internet bar none to this day is still other people. But this week I wanted to expose you all to Ian’s wonderfully elliptical and hyper-concentrated image, for even in that precious moment when it was at its most historically useful, Twitter was also a colossal expression of just that, binge thinking: the surplus of expression that overwhelms our capacity to make sense and participate, and reminds us of just how vain an illusion it is to think that we can use technology solely on our own terms, and not be used by it in return.

I've lost count of the announcements by friends and acquaintances - all well-adjusted, sophisticated, savvy citizens of the Web - that they're taking a break from the computer, or going on a Twitter diet, if only for a day or two. Sometimes it is dictated by external circumstances, such as the recent outage that inspired #whentwitterwasdown, a topic full of slightly shrill witticisms and wise musings about the world without. But mostly, we just unplug.

So, what do you do after a binge?

When I need to step away from the computer sometimes I'll walk up Farnham Street, up to a particular bend in the road where I can see the sea at both ends of the city, let my eyes wander from the Harbour to Island Bay and back again, or contemplate the bush in the foreground and the airport in the background. It is a lovely, quiet spot, my far-too-easily reached place of seclusion: for I am such a domesticated urban beast. Nonetheless it brings to my mind - a little grandiosely, to be sure - those famous lines by Wendell Berry about coming into the peace of wild things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

But then Plinky taunts me thus:

Yes. Yes, I did. I promise I'll have something ready by next Monday.