I got an email from FedEx this morning, one of those cheery little notes that corporations are always sending us. It seemed to me to missing something: a list of the packages I’ve recently sent by FedEx.
Hang on, you will say, you sent the packages. Surely, you don’t need reminding. Actually, I do. Increasingly, my existence is governed by the law of return, the cultural version of which reads, roughly, what does not return to me is gone forever.
At the end of the 1990s, when capitalism was in one of its manic phases, I was sent to help out as a financial services company wooed clients on a tall sailing ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. Acting as a kind of social scientist deck hand, my job was to offer the anthropologist’s view of what capital is, so to make my employer seem magnificently well informed about the world of commerce.
It was a tall ship but not a very big ship and I was surprised to discover that we shared the deck with a camera crew who appeared to want to shoot every thing all the time. This mystery was dispelled when at the end of every day, a magnificent and well oiled meal behind us, we were bid to sit and watch a video of the day’s proceedings. There we were on a boat watching a video of ourselves on a boat. I mean really.
"Oh, God," I thought, "this is going to be one of those narcissistic deals where self absorption competes with self congratulation." But in fact it turned out to be fascinating. And I remember thinking, "so that’s what happened this morning." Because by that time, morning seemed quite a long way away…and not just because Bacchus, god of wine, had taken us captive and ferried us a very long way away. After a day of lively conversation and the visual feast called the Mediterranean, the morning was a distant shore, and this video message-in-a-bottle turned out to be interesting and strangely useful. I kept thinking, "so that’s what happened this morning."
I have seen the law of return in other contexts. And it’s now become a kind of bee in my bonnet. So that when I had the very happy opportunity to talk with a big sneeze in the newspaper world, and we fell to talking about what the newspaper of the future should look like, I found myself arguing that the custom newspaper should include "feeds on me." (Bacchus was sitting at this table too.)
Me feeds should remind me of emails I’ve send, people I’ve met, projects I’ve started or matured, packages I’ve sent. Mostly, I will greet this stream with the baseball-card mantra of boyhood, "got it, got it, want it, got it." But sometimes, I’ll go "oh." Sometimes, this data stream will be an opportunity, maybe my first opportunity, to see a pattern forming, a way my life is changing.
Otherwise, frankly, and this may just be the cold medicine talking, life is a bit of a blur. Unless I hear from myself from time to time, well, feelings get hurt and communication breaks down. We have long accepted that the corporation is a scattered network of actors, agencies, projects and values. And surely it’s time to say the individual is structurally almost precisely the same. Scatter, once the delicious attribute of old fashioned blondes, now belongs to us all. If this is the model for contemporary selves, me feeds are not just useful but necessary.
And I think me feeds might be the secret utility of things like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr. These are widely touted as ways for us to reach out and make contact with others, to build a network with the new technologies. Thus the terms "social computing" and "social utility." But in my experience, the fact that Facebook makes it easy for me to keep track of someone I’ve met at a conference takes it significance not so much from the fact that he and I become active penpals, but from the me feed reminder Facebook sends me a) that I have met the guy at all, 2) roughly who he is, 3) roughly where he is. I see his status update once or twice a week streak across the bottom right hand corner of the screen and think, "oh, right, him. Nice guy. Oh, right, telecoms. Oh, right,…" A small part of the knowledge network I have in my head is illuminated. If telecoms were the only thing I cared about, this would be redundant. But because it is, distantly, one of many things I care about, this is a useful reminder…literally, forgive the sophomoric word play, a re-mind-er.
The digital devices designed to help us keep track of our activities and contacts and values (Stephen Covey, etc.) all seem captive of the modernist conceit that time is an arrow and the self must be aerodynamically fashioned to keep pace with same. To do lists and agendas are always forward looking. Inevitably, there are traces of the past, but this software is never designed to serve this up to us. It’s as if we see the past as completely past, what’s done is done.
But as Baudrillard might say, directionality is over, We are no longer heading in a single direction, not as groups, not as individuals. In a more perfect world, the new technologies that promise to save us from the noise and confusion will do so by being a little less modern and a little more reflexive. What we want is that electronic equivalents of the appointments secretary who has the soul of an archivist and can be relied upon to remind us about "the time you…" What the technologies are always is giving us is "reminders" of the agenda kind when what we need is reminders of the historical kind.
It is, in a manner of speaking, an "attention trust" issue. As I understand it, the people who stand for this issue, say, "listen, each of us has the right to own and control the disposition of our attention on line." And I guess I am arguing that there is a variation on this theme that says, "we need to own and control our attention to the extent that we get better at capturing and replaying a record of where that attention has been." Otherwise, it isn’t clear that our attention belongs to us. It just begins to fade away.
I know that this proposal will be attacked as an instance of Lasch’s notion of a culture of narcissism. Tom Wolfe’s "me decade" will be evoked. So will the famous me routines by George Carlin and Robin Williams, to name just two. But I am not arguing that me feeds are intrinsically interesting, merely that they are useful. All this networking, all this communication node to node, the one party we sometimes neglect is our selves.
With all due apologies to the state of Israel which has first dibs on the Law of Return. See the Wikipedia exposition here.