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I recently encountered this passage in an online journal (ironic, given its content), and found that it stuck in my mind for days afterward. In the article as a whole, the author (somewhat snarkily) muses on what has become of attention and time in our digital world. Without veering into technological determinism, he addresses the fact that using digital media isn't just a matter of choosing to do so -- there is an element of compulsion, of "domestication," possibly even of a lack of discipline (which I know I'm guilty of at times). I've been thinking a lot about this recently, both in research and in my personal life, so perhaps it resonated with me because of that. Here are the opening two paragraphs (for those of us -- me included, usually -- who don't have the time to click through ;~)). I may want to find that Proust passage to include in my own research ...
The pages in Proust's long novel describing a first-ever telephone call are often admired for their rare sensitivity to the experience of a new technology. The narrator is speaking, across the miles of cable, to his grandmother. More than speak, he listens. The telephone separates previously united aspects of his grandmother—her voice and physical presence—and through isolating the voice reveals something that the narrator had missed in the flesh: "having [her voice] alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime."

Proust's passage has no equivalent in any contemporary fiction I know when it comes to an account of a first email read, or first social networking profile posted. Even so, it can't tell us much about what we may really wish to know about technology: never mind losing your virginity—what is it like to live with someone? Proust seems to have recognized that domestication, as the technologists call it, was harder to describe than initiation. In a later volume, he refers in passing to the telephone as "a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice cream."


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January 2011

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