I’m posting a brief excerpt from my master’s thesis paper from a few years back, which was trying to answer the question of what exactly is all of this text that we are creating and sharing online and how does it relate to traditional forms of writing, particularly fiction.  This is just the introduction, but I think it helps explain the nature of online communication and how we think about it, so you may find it interesting or useful.  More on this topic to come.

Text to Speech

In computer interface design, Skeuomorphism is the principle that virtual objects should imitate the real objects they intend to displace.  The idea is to ease the transition, to make the user recognize and become familiar with new technology. The icons and the titles that reference established technologies are signposts to help navigate an unfamiliar world, the shaded corners and worn leather textures attempt to bring a reassuring physicality to a realm that exists only as photons and logic.  Thus, you store your computer files neatly in a folder, alphabetized and dated. Your email icon is an envelope; your notepad app is college-ruled.

This does not mean that Skeuomorphism is automatically a concession to people inadequately educated or immersed in technology.  The problem is not one that can be fully solved by technical expertise or understanding. The only way to relate to unobserved or obscured phenomenon is through analogy with the observed, so such analogies are inevitable in every part of life, whether referencing computer processes or human consciousness.  We are so much more familiar with the everyday analogies, though, that they are invisible to us. You do not store “files” in a “folder” on your computer, as though it were a rolling cabinet, any more than you “grapple” with a tough math problem, as though it were a wrestling opponent, or a great idea “comes” to mind, as though it were a delivery.  They all use a simple, physical act to describe what is (at the very least) an extraordinarily complex series of processes occurring within the computer or the brain that, viewed alone, have no obvious relationship to the photo of your cat or the value of x or the plot of a novel. Skeuomorphism attempts to embed the preferred analogies within the design of the technology.  That the concept is now considered outmoded only shows how comfortable we have become with the new metaphors. We’ve learned to make the connection. We no longer require the cues.

The nature of an analogy is that the related objects are similar in some ways but different in others.  A loss is involved. Good analogies are similar in the essential properties, but the lower, simple object can never fully describe the higher, complex object.  Some things translate easily. A very basic notepad app could be considered a good approximation of the function of a notebook. Each provides an open space in which to put text or drawings to save for later reference.  Each are organized into pages and lists that are not generally linked by anything other than their inclusion in the set and internal references. That the app’s pages are effectively infinite, easily erasable, searchable, etc. are differences but do not spoil the connection.  Taking notes on a smartphone does not change the nature of note-taking. The analogy between them is apt. The college-ruled lines of a notepad app are effective precisely because they are not needed. The computer actually does displace the primary function of the lines on the paper; that is, aligning the text into neat rows.

Bad analogies are deceptive.  They leave out or misrepresent the essential properties being related, altering our understanding of the object.  Email is still tied up with the idea of mail, even for those of us who have never sent a letter or received anything longer than a birthday card.  When it was first developed in the 1960s and 70s, no doubt the creators thought of it as very similar to mail, only faster and more efficient, translating an equivalent text onto a computer screen in the same way that a fax machine was transmitting the equivalent of a physical document.  But while mail is also a means of long-distance, written communication, the method of transmission in emails within the current vast, instantaneous, highly mobile network of information give it a fundamentally different nature. Email is not mail. Texts are not text in the most important ways.  Those are bad analogies. The confusion has changed the way we think about text.

The key difference is one of context.  Pre-internet, nearly all written forms, from letters to newspapers to novels to billboards, shared at least one characteristic: isolation.  The writer and the reader are separated from each other both in time and space. The writer almost never shares the same context as the reader.  This is the virtue of writing, which is a method of communication across distant contexts, through history, even thousands of years apart. To accomplish this, writing tends to draw the surrounding world, including the state of the author and the expected response of the readers, into itself, or else to embed itself into some wider context such as an image.  Whenever you tell a story, whether in person or in writing, you must tell not only the events but the situation in which they occurred. And writing tends to tell stories.

There are exceptions.  We can conceive of situations where people are writing face-to-face.  A teacher writing on a blackboard, for instance. Or imagine two students passing each other a note in the back of the class.  For reasons of propriety, they cannot speak to each other verbally, but they still share the same basic context. In this case, the note can afford to be a one-word joke about, say, the teacher’s dangling toupee, and the one friend can expect the other to understand the joke.  But for the same joke to work for a different friend in another class in another state, the note must recreate the situation for the friend who was not present and does not know this particular teacher with his particular hairstyles. However, if the friend had recently transferred from the school and knew the teacher quite well, she might get the joke even with minimal information.  So the relationship is proportional. The closer the two sides are, the less internal explanation is required.

Post-internet, several things have happened.  1) The network allows for instantaneous text-based communication between parties over great distances.  The writer and reader now share the same moment and can respond to each other within it, a feedback that is not available in most forms of writing.  The back and forth of feedback and response creates something else entirely, a conversation, speech-like in its cadences. 2) As we continue to share more and more data, about the world and about ourselves, our present context expands.  The things we can and are expected to know about each other have increased exponentially. There is no longer much need to update anyone with even the mundane happenings of our personal lives. That information is readily available, and you must be aware of it prior to entering the conversation.  More than ever, we live in the same moment as the people in our network. Much of the information we formerly communicated to others internally and directly now happens externally and indirectly. 3) The connected world was flooded with text (also images, but that’s another topic). Every day, reportedly over 200 billion emails are sent.  The most popular messaging app alone handles over 30 billion daily messages. Text messaging and other apps add billions more. For the first time in the modern era, the majority of what we read and write is conversational. The exception has become the rule.

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