Wave Hello, Say Goodbye

Google Wave Seeks to Supplant Email

by Rob Horning

12 October 2009

I still don't get why instant messaging is preferable to email. I don't want to share my thoughts with people "instantly" -- I am not aspiring to telepathic connection with the random people in my Gmail address book. I want to actually take a moment and think about what I want to communicate and how best to express that in words.

I don’t have an invitation to use Google Wave, so I can only rely on journalist reports as to what it actually is. But these reports don’t seem especially objective; tech writers have every incentive to hype the next big thing and drive traffic. That seems to be the idea behind this WSJ piece by Jessica Vascellaro announcing the death of email at the hands of Google Wave and Facebook, which Wave most likely endeavors to supplant.

Why wait for a response to an email when you get a quicker answer over instant messaging? Thanks to Facebook, some questions can be answered without asking them. You don’t need to ask a friend whether she has left work, if she has updated her public “status” on the site telling the world so. Email, stuck in the era of attachments, seems boring compared to services like Google Wave, currently in test phase, which allows users to share photos by dragging and dropping them from a desktop into a Wave, and to enter comments in near real time.

As Nicholas Carr points out, the assumption here is that real-time communication is something that everyone is clamoring for and will be experienced as a joyous improvement over the delays and distance of email. Carr recalls email’s early days, when its main workplace benefit was that it freed people from the tyranny of the phone—of being disrupted by it and the demands of callers. Email in theory could be read and answered on one’s own schedule. But since email has next to no transaction costs, personal communication, Carr explains, became broadcasting. We get inundated with trivia and simultaneously we cease to recognize when others might think what we have to say is distracting. So parents forward religious inspiration and “funny” pet videos to their agnostic children and so on. As the internet has merged with phones, email has become merely a more intrusive and all-consuming version of phone communication—both disruptive and trivial. Wave will worsen this, making email even more immediate and presence-demanding than it already has been become thanks to BlackBerrys and iPhones. Carr’s conclusion seems spot on:

The downside of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the upside of realtime communication. Asynchrony, once our friend, is now our enemy. The transaction costs of interpersonal communication have fallen below zero: It costs more to leave the stream than to stay in it. The approaching Wave promises us the best of both worlds: the realtime immediacy of the phone call with the easy broadcasting capacity of email. Which is also, as we’ll no doubt come to discover, the worst of both worlds. Welcome to the conference call that never ends.

How perfectly awful. I still don’t get why instant messaging is preferable to email. I don’t want to share my thoughts with people “instantly”—I am not aspiring to telepathic connection with the random people in my Gmail address book. I want to actually take a moment and think about what I want to communicate and how best to express that in words. And I appreciate it when other people do the same. I certainly don’t want to blurt out blasts of type under the pretense that it conjures immediacy over the digital data cables.

One of Google Wave’s “features” is that it allows correspondents to see what others want to say as they type it, so one best not misphrase it or reveal to much in the initial formulation of a thought. As someone who often forms thoughts in the process of typing, this is an untenable feature. I backspace over what I’ve written and cut and paste and insert too much for what I first type to be coherent, let alone something I want to communicate. My thought process is private; I don’t want it exposed because of other people’s casual impatience. The private staging ground for our communications is being eroded under the mistaken notion that this fosters immediacy and possibly even intimacy. But the “immediate self” is not a true reflection of what we mean or what we want or what we are. 

Vascellaro, who throughout writes fatalistically, as if this change from email to instant communication and permanent accessibility is irreversible and inevitable, offers this depressing scenario: “No need to spend time writing a long email to your half-dozen closest friends about how your vacation went. Now those friends, if they’re interested, can watch it unfold in real time online.” Notice how normal the idea of surveillance has become, let alone the insane idea that someone else wants to experience my vacation in real-time. It’s my vacation, not theirs; I don’t need their validation in the midst of it. And I hope I never do. I hope this sort of technology doesn’t start to change me, change the sort of recognition I need to feel okay about myself. The article adds that in the future we’ll be “complaining that our cellphones aren’t automatically able to send messages to friends within a certain distance, letting them know we’re nearby.” Perhaps I am officially a citizen of yesterday. I never want to accept that using digital technology to dispense with the haven of privacy is a good idea. In any pluralistic society, privacy should not be an opt-in concept; it should remain the default.

It seems social networking tools are going to extract more and more from people, bind them more fervently to devices, make the unmediated life seem irrelevant, drained of its being. Our most grandiose impulses of self-importance now have a tool set to support them, promote them, produce them, rationalize them, normalize them, make us dependent on their fleeting narcissistic pleasures. The self we develop in that matrix of perpetual publicity will be more malleable than ever before; there will be no reserve for the individual to draw from, no private experience to shore up a sense of self that the social network rejects or doubts. The endless real-time communication foretells a perfect system for imposing dispersed power on an individual at every moment—to have that individual compulsively referring everything that he regards as significant that he does to the public sphere for comment and recognition, a never-ending compulsion to confess, to invent the anticipated sins and perform the social penances.

The stream of real-time information to which we are continually supposed to contribute may seem a spontaneous eruption of expression, but it is an expression of pure administration. It is designed to simulate the reality from which it parasitically sucks, only it is more amenable to ideological correction. In real time, of course.

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