NYT on "ambient awareness," ethereal intimacy, and internet ESP

I'm reading and re-reading a NYT Magazine piece that explores ambient telepresence, as made mundane by Twitter, Facebook, AIM, and the like. The writer, Clive Thompson, has riffed on this before in Wired. In both, he really nails a number of things I've been struggling to put into words for years. It's a terrific read.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update – each individual bit of social information – is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by – ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy (NYT)


  1. Within the year there will be a popular television crime program of where a man (or woman) starts going crazy because they ‘appear’ to be stalked and they know who it is, because every time they show up somewhere their little pda/phone/whathave you beeps with a new twitter update where someone they are ‘following’ on twitter says “Im heading to who is with me?” He could easily turn this information off but by the point of the show they are supposedly so paranoid about this person they fear turning it off because if they do he won’t know that they are right behind them, freaking out he literally jumps the guy stabbing him 18 times in the chest with a sharpened urinal cake screaming TWITTER THIS!!! TWITTER THAT!!! GET OUT OF MY HEAD!?!!??!?! and it will be up to the series regulars to determine how all this went down in the 35 minutes they have to do such things, add in prologue credits and twist ending we have a nice neat 43 minute episode.

  2. I’m still at the point of “absurd” as he puts it. Lame. Narcissistic. It’s channel flipping, keeping yourself occupied with nonsense. Like this site is for me, only non stop.

    I don’t even text message, when I occasionally get one I call the person back and ask them what they want.

    Then again I am over 30. Thank God.

  3. This is great. I remember attending an Annenberg “Remixing The Archive” conference where I heard Joi Ito speak the first time.

    Aram Seinreich moderated a panel on “remix culture” and I was struck by how each artist talked about some type of “ambient” relationship that develops with their fans. (BB actually published my post on it, but focused on a different panelist – http://www.boingboing.net/2006/11/08/films-interactive-ro.html)

    When I asked if this had a spiritual component; immediately, everyone’s anti-materialist marxist reactionary bias flared. But as we know, given the creation of WWW, its SF “The Well” strain, there is a spiritual component whenever two people meet and communicate and remix media.

    Whether it’s Hegel, The big book of AA or common sense, we need to recognize that “spirit” is created as this digital commons evolves. Unforunately, so is an infinitely of trash and trolls, oh my!

    Here’s the relevant section (and the linkback was incorrect – “One theme that emerged in the panel discussions was the sense of “something” emergent or ambient. That is, all the panelists spoke of something “special,” almost a magical fusion generated between fans/users and artistic forms. New remix technologies strives to share this content and empower this connection. This sharing, this radical digital transformation of content and space is something new. I found the language to be spiritual in the native-american spiritual ecology sense of connecting to something larger when you share yourself within or with a larger entity. Of course, the panelists was self-confessed atheists so we didn’t develop this thread too much, but Aram did recognize that an ethos of sharing can be – potentially – spiritual. Also, you can just share stupid Facebook drunken hook-up photos. Without this connection, your default is our consumer/commodity-driven culture.”


  4. Well, the “E.S.P.” bit is a little much : I’ve been very close to my friends before those technologies existed. In fact, what I find most striking is the ability of humans to use technology to do even more of what they always did.

    Xeni, thanks for babysitting us tonight. ;) You imagined some quite fun games.


  5. Brilliantly described!

    I’d like to share a tale from my wife: there was one Twitter user driving her absolutely mad with tales of over-imbibing. Normally, said individual (who shall go nameless) would not be such a nuisance, but seeing repeated, chronic TWEETS OF DRUNKENNESS drove her bonkers, verily.

    After some persuasion, she doth unfollowed, and is no longer bothered.

  6. n fnl thght: f thr s smthng mbnt/sprtl n n’s dgtl cnnctn, ths hlps xpln th Vlt/Xn clstr-fck vr-rctn.

    Tht s, ppl’s dgtl cnnctns cn b s ntns, tht whn dsppntd, lt dwn r fll f rsntmnt, t’s lmst lk thr “sprt’s” bn hrt?

  7. Yes, reality is so boring that you need to continue searching for your Gibsonian fantasies in children’s toys.

    “The medium *is* the message.”

  8. @#13 anonymous: Silly goose, since when are Gibsonian fantasies or children’s toys (or some combination thereof) other than part of reality?

    This whole tweets-as-ESP notion just isn’t quite sercon enough, though, is it? But, hey, at least it allows someone to play at Mature & Important Individual in response! (Oooh, what sort of costume does that come with? Grey flannel suit, but all chibi style? Are there any ears involved? Wheeee!)

  9. I’ve just been reading Cory’s essay “Facebook’s Faceplant” in “©ontent” (which I typeset) about the uselessness of having ubiquitous tracking of social relationships, and I wonder how it intersects with this twitterishness.

    It reminds me of the line in the film “Help!”, where Roy Kinnear is reporting by headset to his boss: “I am moving my left foot. I am moving my right foot.” Does anyone really need to know?

  10. I haven’t felt comfortable with this business of baring all constantly in one of those sort of profiles. And I wonder indeed, just who wants to know.

    Is is all narcissist? I don’t know that it is. It seems just a very human thing. It’s like the voices of all the the Who people on the dust ball shouting “We’re here! We’re here!”

    This isn’t quite the flip side of Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere. But there is a strange inside-out similarity to it.

  11. This is fanboy blather at it’s worst. Talk about INANE, substitue any drug you like, and it still reads like junkies riffing about thier drug.

    I don’t think there can be anthing more removed from real human contact than this BS.

  12. I’ll buy the thesis insofar as it describes a broad cognitive and behavioral shift in the population. But I can’t swallow the notion that there is anything useful about having one’s attention fractured into thousands of little insignificant shards, or the substitution of minute factoids for real-world contact. Sure you can read about the ham and swiss your friend is eating right now, but if you actually, you know, spent time with your friend, you might also learn that they prefer spicy mustard on one slice and mayo on the other. Or, unbeknownst to them, they have a small OCD thing with dabbing their lips with a napkin after each bite. He says such minutiae accumulate into something like a pointillist portrait of life. But isn’t that a gross distortion of what life looks like without wearing pointillist glasses?

  13. Sorry guys,

    I appreciate the discourse, but this is hardly a novel idea. I thought of this once I first heard about microblogging. This idea is just an extension of either Bob Dobbs or McLuhan. I’d say that we’re simply speeding up the delivery of useless info. I’m not sure if this will have a tetradic reversal effect once we pass a certain threshold, but microblogging will likely further obsolesce linear space/time. I’m not much into media theory lately but one thing that’s clear to me is young Canadians are growing more communal in ways unexplainable. Perhaps they are growing hive-minds. Anecdote: I was at an art show yesterday and the three young artists I was talking to referred to themselves as one person. I think they might get that from google chat alone.

  14. The other day I almost got hit in a crosswalk by some barbie chatting on her walkie talkie while sorta driving a car.

    I tag the incident under “attention deficit disorder”, “out of body experience”, “be here now”, and “lame”.

  15. so? did you do the quick knees-squat/side-hop with butt landing and elbow bash to hood maneuver with follow up bellow and palm slap to hood? Any witnesses at all and it’s a quick $50K of insurance money.

  16. I hate to break it to you guys, but this sort of thing has been going on on the Web for a long time. Twitter is just another incarnation.

    As it is out in the world, it is on the grid: the public has no memory.

  17. I hate to break it to you guys, but this sort of thing has been going on on the Web for a long time. Twitter is just another incarnation.

    As it is out in the world, it is on the grid: the public has no memory.

  18. Takuan: Be careful chasing ambulances like that. There are a lot of uninsured motorists on the road, and I figure if they don’t have insurance, they probably don’t have anything to sue for, either.

  19. I remember when I became ambiently aware of some cross tweets and follows that probably pointed towards flirtation and dating going on between the pair, although there was no public admittance or openess of an actual relationship.

    In these cases that seemed most flirtatious, there was not even direct tweeting at each other.

    I think I felt ambiently creepy.

  20. I’ve just started using twitter… and so far, I’m not entirely sold on it all… I don’t know, perhaps it is the fact that I don’t think that my ‘contemplating, thinking, inspiration has not yet struck…’ messages are all that fascinating, even to me. Do have them as a side-bar in my site though, as just a widget for something a little extra… perhaps somebody finds my ramblings slightly more interesting than I do.

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