Monday, January 27, 2003

Missing Molly: On Virtual Absence

Played virtual tag last night with Molly: an unsuccessful chat invite, an email exchange wondering where our cyberselves are, and then, as always, silence.

Virtual absence. It's a phenomenon we're all familiar with. Like phone tag before it, virtual tag is a neverending game of frustration; like the answering machine before it, newer technologies lend themselves to the suspicion of secretive lurking, of call-screening.

Back when the only media game in town was speech, messages were inseparable from their origin. You went to someone's house, dragging your post-neanderthal club on the ground, if you had a bone to pick or one to offer them; if the person you wanted to see wasn't there, why, you waited, or want away. The away message is moot when the concept of message doesn't really exists, when the idea of the self is the same as that of words-of-the-self.

Later, the development of writing technologies allowed the human psyche to develop an awareness of separation between message and medium, between self and self-thought. Notes could be left, leaving responsibility for renewing contact in the hands of the other. But time was different back then, and what we mean by "are you out there?" changes over time and moment-to-moment, equivalently specific to the conventions of self and other, to time and space and the communications potential of technologies modern-at-the-time.

Now, away messages are all the rage with the students down the hall. Cute or literal, they proliferate in the spaces we inhabit until they become nothing but a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Like the answering machine message before it, the IM away message has become a screening mechanism, by which people not truly away are able to slyly hide their presence online, that they might be empowered to control who and what they talk to.

But if everyone's doing it, then what? Do chat and email become equally synchronous and, oddly, equally asynchronous, making the terms themselves moot? Is this merely the sign of media collapse as previously distinct media become part of a complex and fluid meta-tool called "communication?" When a phone can be a camera, is the way we separate permanent and fleeting technologies no longer a relevant thought?

If two people are both using this method of virtual screening, IM or otherwise, things break down, and the away message becomes a visible ruse -- can't tell you how many times I've IM-ed someone who was supposedly away just to find, sure enough, they were really there all the time. But where, exactly? In the end, the technical details don't matter so much as the questions that are raised about what it means to be here and now, to be human. Is the question not so much who is hiding from whom? as it is what are we hiding from? Is anybody out there? Emails that ask whether an email message was received are a discursive dead end, prompting only apologies, but do they underscore an important shift in the way we see ourselves and each other as temporal and spatial?

For public-view asynchronous technologies the methods are different enough -- the once-or-twice-a-day blog is the norm, not the exception -- and yet not so different, as nothing is truly asynchronous in an age where an email message gone unanswered for a single day is cause for alarm that one has died or worse, concern that one is no longer important to the recipient. The blog demand for the away message is measured in weeks, not days, certainly not hours. Comments and guestmaps and tracking engines let us know who's there to visit and when, but bloggers that go on hiatus, like Sarah Hatter, cause the blogiverse to respond with new tools and calls to arms.

The other day I was showing a student how to disable one's availability to chat invitations on SWIS, the school's First Class-based email/conference/listserv/chat all-in-one engine, and accidentally forgot to re-enable my own ability to be invited into chats. For most faculty this wouldn't be an issue: most teachers are not comfortable with chat technologies, not habituated to the shuffled-card mode of give and take which today's youth find so fluid and natural. But as "The Media Guy" students rightfully assume that I am more invested in having the conversations in ways that are comfortable to them, when they need them, than in requiring that students interested in my ear must have it in my own developed modes. And they're right, which is why it's so frustrating to miss Molly like that.

posted by boyhowdy | 10:22 AM |

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