Skype and individualism

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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 father’s name is Steven.

We all stopped. “That’s right, David, your father’s 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 couldn’t 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 Pam’s 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 another’s 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

Bell, Daniel. 1976. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, editors. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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.

La Fontaine, J. S. 1985. Person and individual: some anthropological reflections. in The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. editors Michael Carrithers, Steven collins, and Steven Lukes, 123-40. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Lukes, Steven. 1969. Durkheim’s ‘Individualism and the Intellectuals’. Political Studies 17, no. 1: 14-30.

———. 1973. Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

15 thoughts on “Skype and individualism

  1. LK

    interesting post, particularly to those of us banking on people wanting to be in a “constant content” environment (currently my [pre]occupation). one thing that comes to mind, particularly when you talk about the little boy piping up is how difficult it is for kids to understand the concept of “phone space”. by this i mean the classic scenario in which the parent is on the phone, usually in the kitchen, deep in conversation, and the child does not get it. therefore the child chimes in with their needs “dad, can you get me this, mom, where’s my supersoaker”…and the parents says “just a second, i’m on the phone, i’m talking to >”. the fact that the parent is in the same physical space as the child is all the child needs to get that goffmanian (?) sense of “us”. you’re here, i’m here, therefore talking to you is fair game. eventually the child learns that when the parent is holding a plastic object to his/her ear that means they are in “phone space”, otherwise engaged until the plastic object is returned to its cradle or stuffed into a pocket. technologies like skype disintermediate (to use a top 10 term of this blog)…which makes me wonder how this type of disintermediation will affect interpersonal communication. the definition of ubiquitous computing, from mark weiser, coiner of the term is “…the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives”

    more on “ubicomp” at

  2. Ennis

    Am surprised that it is working so well for you. For me, the big transition was cell phone and free weekends. You’re right, it’s not constant, but it’s portable around the house. I have many conversations while I am cooking, eating, doing dishes, cleaning up, etc. My issue with skype right now is that it is tethered to a particular spot. So while it works fine next to my computer, I actually do most of my living elsewhere in my apartment, and would prefer actually not to have a constant stream of chatter when I am working (IM is tricky that way).

  3. Gabriel Rossman

    Maybe it’s because I don’t use skype, but I don’t see how its properties differ from an old-fashioned speakerphone with speed dial. It could simply be that since most people don’t have handsets for their computers it encourages you to use a room-room rather than person-person mode of communication, but this has been an option for decades.

  4. Andrew Hansen

    Skype is a “killer app” but it is much more than a replacement for the 100 year old telephone, rarely do I read anyone that truly “gets it”. A speakerphone is not Skype, ubiquitous computing, and in this case Skype, is made twice as compelling as it incorporates propinquity into the mix. The ability to see someones state of presence changes everything. I can broadcast this information to my peers groups differently, perhaps I am not available to my book club, or online for my customers, every portal is different and at my control.

    I think if you don’t already you would enjoy reading this blog, Stuart has a great deal of thought and idea expressed here. Douglas Galbi (senior consultant FCC)has a great perspective on presence and communication, well documented in this paper, also a must read.

  5. Grant

    Leora, calm, effortless, and invisible, that’s “all” I want from my technology. Thanks.

    Ennis, I know what you mean, it isnt portable, yet. And there have to be skype free zones, otherwise we would never get anything done. But while engages in domestic affairs, I think we will want to be on line. Thanks.

    Gabriel, technically, you are right, there’s no difference. But culturally, it’s another matter. I would never have thought to bring a speaker phone into my domestic space and private life. To my way of thinking, it’s a business technology…even after this has been invaded by several other computer technologies. And the “we” benefit of Skype isn’t on the package, it emerges from the moment of use as a late discovery. So I have to have it before its value is revealed. The real difference will come when Skype is wirelessly available to a headset. We will all look like NFL coaches then. And not a moment too soon.

    Andrew, thanks very much, what do you mean “state of presence?” This might be the kind of thing I was trying to get at with my bad phat-ic pun. Phatic communication, as I understand, is content free from a propositional point of view, but it does communicate our state of mind, our emotional tone. And this is crucial because its the kind of thing we wont report easily after the fact. The other has to have “been there” to pick it up for themselves. And thank’s for the links. Most useful. Best, Grant

  6. Ennis

    Grant — have you considered getting a wireless mike to go with your skype? That way you could take skype to the domestic parts of your environment easily. My problem with skype is the same as my problems with having a DVD player/TV card on my computer — when I relax I want to be away from my computer, and there are times when I am working when I want to be insulated from such temptations.

  7. Anonymous

    Fair enough and very wise. So I can get a wireless mike for my PC? I don’t know I could. What’s it called, do you know? Would it be bluetooth tech or something?

  8. LK

    don’t believe the skype? another consideration is that technologies such as skype allow us to bypass “setting up the clip”…as the form of interaction is / can be different from that which is associated with the telephone. just as the way and what we communicate in instant messaging is different from what we do in email. i think it is because skype, messenger, etc are “calm” technologies, that are just there, that we are able to deal in fragments of interaction versus whole pieces complete with introduction, main body, action items, and conclusion. it would be interesting to run mcluhan’s tetrads on skype…

    What does skype enhance?
    What does it erode or obsolesce?
    What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
    What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?

    for those interested, an example of tetradic analysis applied to the automobile can be found at:

  9. LK

    andrew, i was by no means saying that skype *is* ubiquitous computing, but rather that it allows us a glimpse into that very possible future in which personal presence is extended and enhanced, opted into and opted out to with much greater fluidity than landlines or mobile devices currently provide. i think the MIT media lab is doing work in the area of “visual presence”…kind of a silent buddy list, in which you can check in on your network of friends/families/colleagues without actually having to talk or write to them. their “state” is made visible digitally and a quick scan tells us where and how people are, without us having to ask. this is another example of a calm, receding technology that provides us with more information with reduced effort and less clicks.

  10. Grant

    Leora, I think “sitting up the clip,” which I take you to mean “giving an introduction that makes something make sense,” is precisely one of the things Skype does away with (obsolesces, your lingo). The more often we are in touch, especially phatically, the less set up is required. We are “in” one another’s loup. We know the context. This is the thing that was most striking about the Korean and Japanese work I did with kids on networking. Someone could get back in touch with someone from high school (5 years later) pretty easily because no real set up was required. As a result of a steady flow of images and text they were “in one another’s know.” Especially in Japan, this was striking because distance over time created distance in social space. To get back in touch normally takes a great big set up. Networked twentysomethings could return to active friendship because it had never been allowed fully to cool. All the social signally that would normally be required was now unnecessary. Thanks, as always! Grant

  11. LK

    yes that’s exactly what i meant by saying we no longer have to “set up the clip”, we can go straight to the action item, as it were. which is what i’m doing here now. as the anthropologist in residence could you summon the reference for the work on community size and social networks that suggest the number of 150 as a “tipping point”? in fact gladwell may have mentioned it in his book of the same name. the observation (made in a village i believet) was that once a community exceeded the size of 150 the individual’s social networks started breaking down. the reason i ask is that networked, swarming technologies potentially give us ease of access to everyone we have ever known. how do we classify and accommodate these expanding social networks? what’s this year’s 150? what’s next year’s? etc etc.

  12. Skeptikos

    Goll darn, I love your posts.

    This one made me think of a novel by John Brunner (you know, the guy who coined the term “worm” for malicious software and introduced many a teenager to the coming of the ‘net back in ’75)

    “Web of Everywhere”. Nothing to portentious, but it’s worth the half hour it takes to read it, if you can find it.

  13. Grant

    Skepticos, thanks for your kind words and for the reference which I will have a look for. Best, Grant

  14. Andrew Hansen

    Personally it would appear that as Skype becomes “ubiquitous” (I wasn’t suggesting that is was either LK) the richness of the media are the determining factors for our ‘thirst’ for presence.

    “I live in the present”, “when he entered the room, I could sense his presence” – “whether we are a monk travelling from monestary to monestary”1, or teenagers talking about what happened today in the cafeteria at lunch, we have an insatiable need to satisfy our immense need for immediate communication, the richness of the media extend our circles of thought. A good example in the context of this blog, is I am online as I write this, and would love to share ideas before I post this, but I have no idea whether LK, or Grant or the others are online, available, DND etc. (the current verbage used to describe presence on the web) – how can I facilitate that? Skype and some tweaking (check my website) allows for this. The richness of Skype (media) instantly allows me to “hear” what others are thinking – so to speak, due to its lifelike recreation of the human voice – this blog then becomes one communication hub for Grant, he can have as many as he can manage. Presence is the key.

    Grant your point on phatic communication is dead on. Were you stunnnnnnnnnned, when he blewwwwww the kick? The Argooooooos are going to take apart the Lions.. Phatic enough for you? 🙂

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