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On Slow Communication, Plato and Saussure September 1, 2009

Posted by shersego in EMAC 5300.
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I am a believer in slow food and slow travel so I was intrigued to read a recent manifesto about slow communication, “Not So Fast”  by John Freeman. Ironically the article was posted by a friend on Facebook–one of the speed offenders. Freeman claims that excessive use of email and social media has confused faster speed with efficiency and a twisted notion of progress.  In the process it blurs the boundaries between work and leisure, and robs us of the sweetest pleasures of being human. He asks a provocative question, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

The three points Freeman makes echo arguments going back to Plato, in my opinion, against shifting technology in emerging media and communication. Briefly summarized, they are: 1) speed matters – speed changes the way we experience things; 2) the physical world matters – electronic communication distances us from our physical bodies and face-to-face interactions; and 3) context matters – unlike virtual, the real world provides context that promotes mindfulness leading to more sustainable and rewarding relationships. Freeman does not wholly condemn the internet, rather he exhorts temperance to use it  as a supplement to our existing world instead of a world in itself.

Speaking of temperance, this brings me around to Plato’s point of view in the Phaedrus. While the subject of this dialog is largely about rhetoric, love, beauty and dialectic, there is also a discussion about speech and writing.  Similar to comparing email to face-to-face, the technology in question is the written word versus the spoken word. Socrates relates the Egyptian story of Theuth, who, upon the invention of writing, was told by the god Thamus that it will spoil human memories and understanding.  For this reason writing is considered an illegitimate bastard child of knowledge. Speech is considered the superior communication because it can adapt naturally to situations in the moment, whereas static words never change. In short, spoken words are “living”; written words are “dead.”  I think Freeman would be sympathetic to this point of view provided the word “electronic” is exchanged for “written.” While Freeman is not as extreme in his position, the shared similarity between the two is their concern for the betterment of human life through the beauty of palpable human experience.

In contrast, Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics makes no distinctions that would elevate one type of communication over the other.  In a scientific examination, he breaks down the elemental components of language arising from interrelationships of the sign, signified and signifier.   Language communication, whether written or spoken, is distinguished by phonic substances and linguistic concepts that are not predetermined, but are defined more by the surrounding signs than the sign itself. If Saussure’s claim is correct, it means there is no linguistic difference between electronic and verbal communication.  To this Freeman would argue that the ramped up speed of online communication makes it difficult to separate the sign from the noise.

I am interested in this discussion on several levels.  Personally I relate to having a scrambled attention span as a result of being a full-time student staying current with online research, and having a job that revolves around  a stream of email flowing continuously throughout the day, not to mention having a social presence on the web that not only connects me to the academic community, it reconnects me with extended family and friends–some of whom I thought I would never “see” again.  While it is all welcome, this online cocktail consumes morning, day and night.  I have to admit that when I have spent so many hours online, I do not feel rested.  Perhaps because I remember adult life before the internet and mobile technology, occasionally being unplugged is a soulful human experience I miss.

Believe it or not, this discussion also relates to the goals of a social dance game.  Taking Plato’s point of view, if the living body is to dance as the living word is to speech, it raises the question whether creating an electronic (“dead”?) version of a corporeal experience is another step in the direction of disembodiment and soul-detachment. In the big picture of human experience, how valuable is this really?  On the other hand if the language of dance is simply a linguistic system that occurs in space and time simultaneously, perhaps the physical medium does not matter–just as the letters and phonics of a sound-image do not matter in verbal communication.  The question of meaningful embodied experience has weighed in since the earliest days of defining this game concept.  My position is that a well-designed, well-crafted game can provide joyful memories in front of a screen.  But it is a complicated question; I’m sure I will write more about this in future blog posts.

In the meantime, I think of the paradox of Plato’s work of art.  Even though he bashed the invention of writing, after 2,000 years we are still reading his words. Will anything that comes from our present age of electronic publishing achieve this kind of permanence?  If not, what does that mean?

And on a somewhat related note, this quote came across my tweet stream yesterday from my friend Lori:  RT @Durgamaa: A dog is not considered a good dog b/c he is a gd barker. A man is not considered a good man b/c he is a gd talker. ~ Buddha