In about 2 weeks, Skype has made itself indispensable. I use it to talk to my fiancée, a couple of brothers-in law, colleagues and friends.
But it’s also anthropologically illuminating and raises questions about what will happen to the self when we are truly ubiquitous.
Skype takes us one step closer to have electronic access to everyone we know with a minimum of interference. The telephone was a big step here, replacing hand written letters and telegrams the content of which would cool quite distinctly as the message inched its way to the recipient. The cell phone took the telephone one better. It means we can make and take calls anywhere.
Phone and cell phone give instant, ubiquitous access, but a certain interference or mediation persists. There was lots of hunting and pecking required, made more difficult by every smaller cell phone. And of course it was necessary to remember phone numbers and to find people when they were “in or “packing.
Skype is better still. Forget the fact that its free. What makes Skype a killer app is the fact that it allows us to get in touch with one click. Once it too is wireless there will be virtually no cost in time or effort to make contact. We can imagine a time when we are effortlessly in touch with anyone anywhere. The little microphone in our ears will stream with the voices of the people we care about, as they let us know what they are up to, how they are feeling, and “just stay in touch. We will then be in possession of a detailed, pretty intimate, daily knowledge of friends and family. Phat-ic!
But there are other benefits that are becoming evident to me as I use the technology. One is the kind of calls you end up having. A couple of days ago, I had an interesting conversation with my future nephew. He was in Connecticut. I was in Montreal. I was talking to Pam, my voice issuing from her iBook. Once he got over the fact that he was being listening to a box of white plastic, he announced, over the general hubbub of voices in the room, that his fathers name is Steven.
We all stopped. “Thats right, David, your fathers name is Steven! And we had a long conversations about names. (David and I agreed everyone should have an absolutely distinct name and not have to share. We also decided it would be simpler if our first, middle and last names were all the same. He would be David David David. I would be Grant Grant Grant.) Now, this is a conversation David would never have joined were it not for Skype. His aunt would have been holding the phone. He couldnt have got “in.
Furthermore, telephone conversations are hard for kids because they are bad at the set up and the sustaining talk needed to make a conversation. They pace badly. They speak out of turn. It is much, much easier in person. But with a roomful of people at Pams end keeping the conversation going, and with a microphone to capture anything and everything being said, it was easy for David to just shout out. And, presto, he was suddenly very much a part of the conversation. Now, I have access even to the worst conversationalist in the family (and he to me).
Today I’m watching Saskatchewan play B.C. in a Canadian Football League playoff game. Emmet, my brother-in-law and I will no doubt be Skyping throughout the game. (“Nice catch! “Great hit!) We will in effect be watching the game together despite the fact that we are 3000 miles apart. We will not have to talk later in the day or next week about “the game.” We will know exactly what the other thought.
“What, I found myself thinking over breakfast, “does this mean for personhood? David, Emmet and I now have something like instant, costless access to each other and the family. Our lives are more porous to one another. We are, as Goffman would say, much more a “we than we used to be.
Plainly, this is a job for the likes of Judith Donath, the MIT expert in the social consequences of computing (as below), but I would like to take a crack at it. It means that we go back to the kind of face-to-face (now voice-to-voice) proximity that used to exist in the West until quite late in the game. Most of the people Westerners cared about existed within the range of their voices. It is one of the staples of the literature on individualism that people who lived in these little audio ambits had very porous selves indeed. Living in close proximity, they had “blurred boundaries. Their lives were so overlapping and interpenetrating that it was hard to tell at any given moment were the “I left off and the “other began. Social life and personal identity were one large soup of mutuality.
So what happens when we use Skype and its successors and begin to get instant access to everyone all the time? Do we return to that soupy world in which the boundaries of personhood begin to blur? Do we return to an intimate little world in which we live out of one anothers pockets. Does the self become much more a node in a net than a pebble in the stream. And would this mean that individualism, (and the notion that selves are relatively speaking pretty well bounded), end up being a relatively brief period in the history of the West?
I raise these questions only. The rest of up to Dr. Donath.
For more on Skype here
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Carrithers, Michael, Steven Collins, and Steven Lukes. editors. 1985. The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1986. Boundaries and the Sense of Self in Sixteenth-Century France. Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality and the Self in Western Thought. editors T. C. Heller, M. Sosna, and D. E. Wellbery, 53-63. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Donath, Judith. Forthcoming. Sociable Media. The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction and here.
Dumont, Louis. 1986. Essays on Individualism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
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Lukes, Steven. 1969. Durkheim’s ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’. Political Studies 17, no. 1: 14-30.
. 1973. Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.