On Time and Engagement in the Present

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Today, two events occurred that together brought me to a clarifying thought about the ways we are in-time today. The first was a conversation with a retired professor, and the second was an entry on Milan’s excellent blog.

John was making the not too controversial point that the institution of texting, tweeting, being on the computer all the time, is an exercise of talking all the time without saying anything – because one is too busy talking. Too engaged in too many directions to take any particular one seriously. Or, a way for all your time to be taken up, for you to be effectively deported away from where you are. As these external demands on time become totalizing, it becomes a subversive, insane activity today to actually decide oneself what to do with one’s time. Decisions are made for us, or rather, we make decisions given extreme social/cultural pressures to participate in particular sets of values.

Milan’s post argues that voicemail and video are his two least favorite forms of communication because they can not be:

“easily skimmed to determine the degree to which they are relevant and interesting. They also cannot be searched for keywords, or automatically filtered on the basis of content.”

This is an interesting reversal of the standard critique of video. When I was younger, even in grade eleven, professors used to argue that the difficulty with pre-produced media as opposed to written text was that they were too fast, that they didn’t provide time for reflection and engagement. That instead of being engaged in a text, you were deported by a film – that it kept going when you naturally would have stopped to think. Here, the opposite point is being made – film requires too much engagement, they are too quick (they cannot be “skimmed”). Text on the other hand becomes what film used to be – the quick, easy, fast, convenient way to learn about something that is not very important to you, whereas film is now only good “when you are fully interested in the subject matter”.

What do these two thoughts have in common? Well for one, they both have to do with the speed at which we are expected to deal with knowledge, and the amount of engagement which can be reasonably expected at that speed. It seems to me that it is possible to become so reliant on the constant stream of information that is blogs, newspapers, facebook, (twitter for some), that actually deciding how to spend one’s time, rather than coping with the streams, might almost become a subversive activity. I’m not trying to make a strictly totalizing statement here – I don’t think everyone is “trapped” in this whirlwind, or that everyone participating in a thousand streams is actually trapped -there might be freeing ways of participating as well as entrapping ways. At the same time, however, I really do respect people like Kaitlyn, who is not Luddites by any stretch, but who chooses not to have a cell phone, or even to have internet at home – because of the costs constant connectivity can impose on one’s autonomy.

The deeper question, however, has to do with not with individual action, my choices on how to respond to the ways cultural society structures my existence, but rather – is this structuring of leisure time into coping with streams of shallow (twitter) or shallowly engaged with (skimmed emails) content any different from the ways society has always colonized the time of its members through labour, religion, etc… – is twitter “just” the new Zeus, the new textile mill? Or, is the way it’s bound up with “leisure” and “self expression” (self publishing!) make this way of having one’s time externally structured more devious, more dis-empowering than the others? Is this concealed by the fact it is so easy to parody, as “Let me Twitter that” – a new Andy Milonakis rap?  Is this concealed by the fact it is superficially easier to circumvent – the addict’s “I can stop anytime”? Is it even more deeply concealed by this it being actually easier to circumvent (maybe we are not addicts?) ? What is the status of the “ease” of stepping back and deciding to:

Never replace face-to-face with technology. This is the big one. Human beings are social. We need facetime. We need touch. We rely on extremely subtle cues from tone of voice, body language, and posture to read people; those things can’t be replicated in text messages, no matter how much passion is infused with “r u awak?” People live far? Call ’em on the phone. People live close? Go see ’em.” (Hipsters are Boring, August 26 2009)

We could of course simply do it. And we do do it, those of us who are lucky enough to live in real communities, or who remember how to use a phone. But concentrating only on communication and not publishing or learning misses part of the picture. Here is a list of information Milan processes on a daily basis:

  • At least ten email accounts, three highly active
  • Two phone lines, with voicemail
  • A complete issue of The Economist per week
  • BBC, Slate, and Globe and Mail headlines daily
  • Dozens of blogs, many of them highly active
  • Discussions on my blog
  • Instant messages
  • Waves
  • Google Alerts
  • Text messages
  • Comments on certain blogs I follow
  • Mailing lists
  • Etc.

The advantages of access to so much information on a constant basis are obvious. But we still have to ask questions about whether, in the midst of all this knowledge, there is still an “us” taking it in? Or, are we quietly becoming, in our free time, knowledge machines? Are “we” deciding anything when we read and interpret this vast amount of data continuously? Or are we simply sites for the data to analyze itself? Where is conscience? And where do the people go? We should in no way be surprised they are outcast to text messages and facebook! York University is actually in the planning stages of moving all of first year university into being strictly online (you wouldn’t actually attend University in person until second year – so the same amount of classrooms can accommodate a bigger student body).

It cannot be contested that the cyber is changing our bodies – socially, intellectually, and physically of course as well. The question about the effects, the desirability, how to cope,  and what are the possibilities for transgressive activity they might engender, these must all be held open.

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One thought on “On Time and Engagement in the Present

  1. I feel overwhelmed by cyber communication often. I check my email too often, I send out emails too quickly and too often. The text message world has now added another element of overload.

    I think I might just turn everything off this evening and read. Maybe I can even write a letter.

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