Twitter Time

“Twitter relies on people’s desire to be the same.” At least that’s what A. C. Goodall claims in a recent New Statesman article, “Is Twitter the Enemy of Self-Expression?”  This is, it would seem, a rather vague and unsubstantiated claim.  In his brief comments, Alan Jacobs writes that Goodall’s piece amounts to “assertions without evidence.”  Jacobs goes on to argue that it is unhelpful to make sweeping claims about something like Twitter which is “a platform and a medium,” rather than an organized, coherent unit with an integral “character.”  A medium or platform is subject to countless implementations by users, and, as the history of technology has shown, these uses are often surprising and unexpected.

On the whole I’m sympathetic to Jacobs comments.  His main point echoes Michel de Certeau’s insistence that we pay close attention to the use that consumers make of products.  In his time, the critical focus had fallen on the products and producers; consumers were tacitly assumed to be passive and docile recipients/victims of the powers of production.  De Certeau made it a point, especially in The Practice of Everyday Life, to throw light on the multifarious, and often impertinent, uses to which consumers put products.  Likewise, Jacobs is reminding us that generalizations about a medium can be misleading and unhelpful because users put any medium to widely disparate ends.

This is a fair point.  However (and if there weren’t a “however” I wouldn’t be writing this), I’m a bit of a recalcitrant McLuhanist and tend to think that the medium may have its influence regardless of the uses to which it is put.  And perhaps, I might better label myself an Aristotelian McLuhanist, which is to say that I’m tending toward localizing the impact of a medium in the realm of habit and inclination.  The use of a medium over time creates certain habits of mind and body.  These habits of mind and body together yield, in my own way of using this language, a habituated sensibility.  The difficulty this influence poses to critique is that, precisely because it is habituated, it tends to operate below the level of conscious awareness.

I don’t think the focus on use and the attention to the effects of a medium are necessarily mutually exclusive.  Habits after all are only formed through significant and repeated use.   Perhaps they are two axes of a grid on which the impact of technology may be plotted. In any case, it would help to provide an example.

Consider our experience of time.  It seems that the human experience of time, how we sense and process the passage of time, is not a fixed variable of human nature.  My sense is that we habituate ourselves to a certain experience of time and it is difficult to immediately adjust to another mode.  Consider those rare moments when we find ourselves having nothing to do.  How often do we then report that we were unable to just relax; we had the urge to do something, anything.  We were restless precisely at the moment when we could have taken a rest.   Or, at a wider scale, consider the various ways cultures approach time.  We tend to naturalize the Western habits of precise time keeping and partitioning until we enter another culture which operates by a very different set of attitudes toward time.  It would take something much longer than a blog post to explore this fully, but it would seem plausible that certain technologies — some, like the mechanical clock, very old — mold our experience of time.

Bernard Stiegler has commented along similar lines on the media environment and consequent experience of time fostered by television.  To begin with he notes, going back to the establishment of the first press agency in Paris in 1835 near a new telegraph, that the “value of information as commodity drops precipitously with time …”  He goes on to describe industrial time in the following context:

“…. an event becomes an event — it literally takes place — only in being ‘covered.’  Industrial time is always at least coproduced by the media.  ‘Coverage’ — what is to be covered — is determined by criteria oriented toward producing surplus value.  Mass broadcasting is a machine to produce ready-made ideas, ‘cliches.’  Information must be ‘fresh’ and this explains why the ideal for all news organs is the elimination of delay in transmission time.”

To be sure, more than the logic of the medium is at play here, but it may be difficult and beside the point to parse out the logic of the medium from other factors.

The ability to eliminate  of the delay between event and transmission that characterized industrial time has been radically democratized by digital media.  We are all operating under these conditions now.  You may vaguely remember, by contrast, the time that elapsed between snapping a picture, getting it developed, and finally showing it to others.  That time has been collapse, not only for large news organizations, but for anyone with an internet enabled smart phone.  In the interest of creating catchy labels, perhaps we may call this, not industrial time, but Twitter time.  “Twitter” here is just a synecdoche for the ability to immediately capture and broadcast information, an ability that is now widely available.  My guess is that this capacity, admittedly used in various ways, will affect the sensibility that we label our “experience of time.”

Stiegler continues (with my apologies for subjecting you to the rather dense prose):

“With an effect of the real (of presence) resulting from the coincidence of the event and its seizure and with the real-time or ‘live’ transmission resulting from the coincidence of the event and its reception, a new experience of time, collective as well as individual, emerges.  This new time betokens an exit from the properly historical epoch, insofar as the latter is defined by an essentially deferred time — that is, by a constitutive opposition, posited in principle, between the narrative and that which is narrated.  This is why Pierre Nora can claim that the speed of transmission of analog and digital transmissions promotes ‘the immediate to historical status’:

‘Landing on the moon was the model of the modern event.  Its condition remained live retransmission by Telstar . . . . What is proper to the modern event is that it implies an immediately public scene, always accompanied by the reporter-spectator, who sees events taking place.  This ‘voyeurism’ gives to current events both their specificity with regard to history and their already historical feel as immediately out of the past.’

There is a lot to unpack in all of that.  We are all reporter-spectators now.  Deferred time, time between event and narration, is eclipsed. Everything is immediately “out of the past,” or, at least as I understand it, the whole of the past is collapsed into a moment that is not now.  The earthquake and tsunami in Japan, just two months past, might as well have taken place five years ago.  The killing of bin Laden, likewise, will very soon appear to be buried in the indiscriminate past.

Twitter as a medium, used to the point of fostering a habituated sensibility (but regardless of particularized uses), would seem to accelerate this economy of time and expand its province into private life.  It doesn’t create this economy of time, but it does heighten and reinforce its trajectory.  In fact, the relentless flow of the Twitter “timeline” (not an insignificant designation), or better, our effort to keep up with it and make sense of it, may be an apt metaphor for our overall experience of time.

All of this to say that while a medium or platform can be used variously and flexibly, it is not infinitely malleable; a certain underlying logic is more or less fixed and this logic has its own consequences.  Of course, none of this necessarily amounts to saying Twitter is “bad”, only to note that its use can have consequences.

Speaking of habit, I’m curious if anyone felt the urge to click the “1 New Tweet” image?


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