Time, Proximity And Meaning On The Net
Playing At Not Answering
Communication channels on the net have mushroomed owing to the vast
improvement in synchronism and simultaneity. Many observers consider
this an impoverishment and a step backwards with regard to
chronologically separate functionality, viewed as a series of
predictable states in an ordinary question/answer cycle. In
particular, many have stressed that, in instantaneous and multi-point
communication, the stability of communication codes has been
jeopardised by the perceptive impact accompanied by dissipative
time frames. The latter are, in fact, so undisciplined that, if and
when, messages reach their destination, the time seldom coincides
with users' expectations.
Netsurfers, however, are attracted by this absence of time margins
which enables them to find many answers on the net without having to
know their origins and without necessarily being able to predict when
these answers will arrive. In this permeable and elastic time
dimension, availing of inefficiencies and delays on the net, surfers
can engage in simultaneous activities, using overlapping and
alternative paths. Digital technology permits the user to interrupt
the relationship between time, image and individual sensory and motor
mechanisms. This can be seen in the greater mutability of subjective
profiles on the web, and actually explains why netsurfers are so
tolerant of time warps during communication. The encounter with new
technological artifacts forces individuals to change their
mentalities, by learning new rules besides partially forgetting old
It is becoming increasingly true that the introduction of a
communication formula in instantaneous and multi-point communication
systems will depend more on the rapidity and on the sharpness of the
user's subjective judgement than on efficient synchronism and
coherent information. This judgement is bound to become a dominant
factor owing to the nature of the risks present in simultaneous and
multi-directional communication. Users will have to know how to move,
how to experiment, how to avoid cycles of hypnotic solicitations, so
as not to be distracted by signals that are momentarily stronger or
excessive, so as not to yield to pressure from whoever has been able
to communicate on the same channel. In this context it is difficult
to agree with those who think that the conditions for communicating
lie in technical balance and certainty rather than in the subjective
conditions at the root of the interaction. Communication technology
is always conditioned by the recognition of the differences and
similarities between the interlocutors.
Nevertheless the degree of evolution of a technology should be
considered in proportion to its ability to take into account the
rhythm established for communication cycles, the practice of allusion
and provocation and man's capacity to understand what cannot be
explicitly communicated. These aspects, rather than being expressed
in predictable paths, are often guided on the web by a wish to
differentiate the interlocutors' ability. Why should this surprise
us? Omission, repetition, deferral and dilution of messages have
always differentiated communication styles, corresponding to
subjective modulations widely practised everywhere without causing
scandal. It is correct to believe that subjective modulations are
physiologically accentuated by the interaction mechanisms of the net:
the act of entrusting a message (assuming that there is a receiver
who is able to and wants to reply) should appear to be a temporary
result, open to improvement. "The act of writing is intensely local,
for, although we may be certain of an audience, we are unable to
verify its existence just as we are unable to verify its
interpretation of our writing"1.
It is no longer a matter of verifying the degree of efficiency (or
adaptation) of the latest alphabetic technology, but rather of
insistent searching for unpredictable counterparts that can never be
fully interpreted. In the discontinuous reality of multimedia spaces,
attention spaces are far more important than conceptual
constructions, and the organization and selection of each element
involves new skills in order to discern the different qualities, both
symbolic and discursive, of data structures 2, which are formed
thanks to the salience effect of their own components 3. For this
reason, the meaning of a "single" answer to a "single" question
cannot be fully encompassed in the lines on a page covered by tiny,
ordered letters. Being unpredictable, it cannot be compelled to
manifest itself, not even as a belated revelation.
Non-Paper Points of View
Many worries about the expansion and contraction of waiting (and
listening) times seem to reflect a strong dependence on paper
publishing habits, which need incompressible amounts of visual space
and fruition time regulated by visual/linear paths 4. Is the
pollution caused by pages and pages of text alone the right visual
standpoint for judging the efficacy of the communicative resources of
web sites? After all, information offered by images requires slightly
less time than that needed to decipher written texts, and some
interactive environments even offer musical feedback 5.
Furthermore, editing tools have made all types of material
accessible, allowing the modification of the parameters concerning
contemporaneously the visual, lexical, syntactic and semantic aspects
of a message.
Such practices, which require the expansion, the study and
remodulation of attention spaces 6 are changing the overall
features of comprehension, revolutionising the life cycles of
documents, but they are also eliciting the reassessment of the
regulations for the start of a dialogue. The subjects who live on the
net, instead of taking the similarities and differences to be
overlappings or invasions, now take them to be a game of invitations,
of metamorphoses and suggestions. And it is for this reason that, on
many web pages, subjects who believe they need no mediation to
express themselves come into play: they are encouraged to reveal
themselves across a variety of contexts, and thus compelled to
embrace the idea of an identity that can be periodically revisited.
So, while some identities hide or change, causing informative
black-outs and communication overlapping, others play at creating new
identities on the net, revealing themselves through entirely
dreamt-up actions 7.
Together with exploration and discovery, what would appear to emerge
as the dominant characteristics of communication on the net, are the
manipulation of contents, the materialisation (in different contexts)
of identities provoked by the need not to offer univocal conclusions.
Besides, when the conditions of a conversation offer no immediate
benefit there is some advantage in rejecting the frustration of a
permanent and rhetorically pre-defined self. Experiencing a situation
of multiple narrative possibilities amounts to starting paths which
may involve overlapping, and even different, times 8. Speculating
about time and perfecting the awareness of where, when and who we
are, means learning to accept the vast range of transactions offered
by the net; it also means thinking and using cyberspace as a dynamic
and malleable extension of oneself and others, poised between
perturbation and compensation.
D. De Kerckhove and P. Levy sketched the traits of collective
intelligence well. They described it as composed of a combination of
personalities engaged in a task of mutual metabolization; they all
meet in an auto-centered and multiversal space, where their psychic
expressions are led to modify their existential coordinates in
continuation. Because of the infinite plurality of relating forms,
time completely abandons the metaphor of the river that flows, and
acquires a metamorphic liquidity: "In a region of cyberspace, time
itself may pulse, now passing faster, now slower". Time allows
fluctuating and ethereal relations to be forged, and immaterial
architectures to be set up, "which breathe, pulsate and transform
from one form to another" 9.
The mobile and immaterial architecture of cyberspace leads
communication away from a sequential and linear style, compelling
subjective time to flow again and again around decisions already
made, to modify phases and implications. This causes a combination of
known properties (density, priority, linearity, parallelism,
ramification and circularity), and creates complexes of temporal
intervals with different orders. Moreover the freedom to plan the
rules for the transformation and for the temporal variation of
cyberspace scenarios has also been compared to the composition of
musical events 10: just as features of scenarios can be defined,
changed and reorganized by repeated intervention on process frames,
similarly, digital techniques can contract infinitely small intervals
of time-matter, and likewise develop the possibility of crystallizing
and reorganizing sound-matter 11.
To The Last Node
A relational distance with others, experienced as telepresence, has
led to the homologation of the expectations of dialogues within a
relational proximity based on groups of communities on the net and
crossed by individuals with partial, fictitious and manipulated
identities. We cannot be sure whether "one" presence on the net may
still be seen as the expression of a single identity, but we do know
that the various connotations of that "one" person will, however, be
perceived through the same interlocutor's capacity to reflect,
interpret and summarize.
This means that the rules of engaging in conversation are changing
from a declarative model to a negotiational one, during which the
dialogue patterns between not necessarily authenticated entities
have to learn to organise themselves through the interpretation of
signs and mutations. Every interlocutor uses his own negotiation
strategy, at the end of which some conflicts can be resolved; but "if
those conversing influence the outcome by providing inaccurate
information, there is the risk of some negotiation protocols being
relatively unstable" 12. This is even more accentuated when one of
the "constants" on which the negotiating protocol is based, is
removed. On the net, the phases of definition of interaction
strategies, traditionally described by using the theory of games, are
subject to further complexities deriving from the changed concept of
time. Time, in fact, has become one of the protocols to be
Every experienced surfer knows he has to face an infinite range of
experiences and communication profiles; he also knows that the
cultural tools he has to use are becoming increasingly less
"personal" because they are more and more widely used, and that,
paradoxically, they are more and more inalienable. This awareness
seems to give rise to the sense of belonging to a community,
strengthened by the perception of an ideal map; the abstract, yet
topologically perfectible image of all the innumerable selves,
stretched out, right to the last node. In this scenario even the most
striking contradictions can co-exist and can be reconciled through
constant readjustments of the scale of importance of subjects and
messages, and readjustments in pace and time of communication.
Sharing knowledge between sender and receiver depends on the actual
feedback times and on the time scale of mutations of habits of a
community 13. While, in the interactive dimension of the net, the
scaling of listening time may assume a pattern of its own, deriving
from the interlocutor's reactions and from the flexibility in the
communicative sessions. That is why I suggest inattention and waiting
should be recognized as techniques to be used to filter background
net noises or to avoid the hammering tam-tam and the invasiveness of
explicit messages. Thus, it may become possible to propose a less
dramatic interpretation than that of Paul Virilio, regarding the
"inertia" manifested when faced with the immediacy of information, of
the lost memory of the computer, which threatens to strike at the
heart of man's conscience" since "when faced with rapidity of
information and the consequent relinquishment of physical movement
the teleactor risks losing the memory of what can be acquired by
This sense of loss can be overcome; after all, manifestations of
plasticity, unruliness and discontinuity of communicative repetitions
are the effects of a process of revisitation and discovery, an
upheaval extending from the perception of contexts to awareness,
increasing the knowledge of the nature of time frames. In other
words, indefiniteness forces individual awareness to direct the
processes of temporal reasoning through non-coercitive, predictive
logic. This means that, in the absence of any evidence to the
contrary, certain conclusions may be reached, but the possibility of
retracting remains, should contrasting evidence be produced 15.
Searching On The Net
Digital technology produces time that does not flow, a matrix time
16 which makes it possible to effect any change whatsoever on
crystallized time-matter and to simulate temporal paths that can be
further modified. On the web, these characteristics permit
significant intervention on the architecture of medial spaces 17.
That is why these spaces overlap, are discontinuous and free from any
restrictions of irreversible temporality. On the web the specific
pliability of time-matter permits the interlocution models of on-line
communication. It habituates us to a new cognitive style based on the
prerogatives of short-term memory and trains us to consider not to
take the permanence of contexts and meaning so much for granted.
Being on the web means being inside areas that intersect realities
permeated by a continuous flow of sensorial connection and
disconnection, and navigation through the net means crossing
sensorial zones that are subject to a continuously changing
cross-reference system. We know that the question pattern indicates
the path through different semantic fields. Nevertheless, faced with
a situation of constant migration of meanings, any research risks a
loss of meaning, a re-interpretation of all the known data or a
conflict of meaning.
It is a significant fact that the themes of bewilderment, conflict
and involuntary displacement came up, over and over again, in the
final selections of the WWW sites participating in the Linz Prix Ars
Electronica. In the field of artistic communication, the idea of
being catapulted out of a context comes very close to being a result
achieved thanks to continuous stylistic innovations. Many web sites,
which have become linguistic and expressive workshops, systematically
propose sudden changes of semantic and perceptive frameworks as a
means to improve awareness of new conceptual and emotional
connections. If shocks, "a prevailing form of sensitivity in the
great industrial age" 18 can become a basic part of our experience,
we should not be surprised that the need to be outside ourselves, to
be something "different"to what we think we are, while we continue to
be exactly that, is becoming socially acceptable behaviour. But
unlike oneiric experiences, where the ego is at the same time
involuntary actor and spectator of its own mutation of identity 19,
subjects surfing on the net knowingly accept a methodical scission of
the ego. This explains why they avoid sequential communicative paths,
and why they confide in the non-permanence of frames.
1. Jones, N., The semantics of Computer Communications, Et Cetera
45, quoted from Reymers, K., in: Identity and Internet: A symbolic
interactionist perspective on computer-mediated social networks.
Part 4, 1998, http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~reymers/identity.htm.
2. Trumbo, J., A Conceptual Approach to the Creation of Navigable
Space in Multimedia Design, Interactions of ACM, July & August, New York, 1996.
3. Reymers, K., Identity and Internet: A symbolic interactionist
perspective on computer-mediated social networks, 1998,
4. Gingher, R. S., Hypermediated Reasoning and Cognitive
Dissonance, 1997, http://www.uncg.edu/~rsginghe/metastat.htm.
5. Prix Ars Electronica Linz, Webcollider,
http://audio.apana.org.au/collider/collider.html; Etoy - http://www.etoy.com.
6. Rushkin, D., Playing the future: How Kid's Culture Can Teach Us
to Thrive in an Age of Chaos, Harper Collins, New York, 1996.
7. Turkle, S., Life on the screen: Identity in the age of
Internet, Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1996.
8. Magnani, L., Ingegnerie della conoscenza, Marcos y Marcos,
9. Novak, M., Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace: First Steps,
edited by M. Benedikt. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.
11. Lazzarato, M., Videofilosofia - La percezione del tempo nel
postfordismo, Roma, Manifestolibri, 1996.
12. Robinson, W.N., Volkov, V., Supporting the Negotiation Life
Cycle, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 48, N. 5, New York, 1998.
13. Draper, S.W., Design as Communication, Commentary on Borderline
Issues, Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 9, pp. 61-66, Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1994.
14. Virilio, P., La velocite assoluta, 1996,
17. Novak, 1992.
18. Benjamin, W., Ecrits francais, Gallimard, Paris, 1991.
19. Bodei, R., Frugate nei sogni vedrete il futuro, Corriere della
Sera, RCS, 12 agosto 1998.
works at L.I.M. (Musical Informatics Laboratory), Computer
Science Department, Milan University.
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