Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, October 15, 2009

asynchrony, how I love you

Okay, so, long post here. Stop tweeting and pay attention. Jessica Vascellaro has an essay in the WSJ in which she says,

Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.

In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine.

We all still use email, of course. But email was better suited to the way we used to use the Internet—logging off and on, checking our messages in bursts. Now, we are always connected, whether we are sitting at a desk or on a mobile phone. The always-on connection, in turn, has created a host of new ways to communicate that are much faster than email, and more fun.

And then she goes on to do the usual thing, which is to say, in effect, “this new technology speeds everything up and increases our connectivity, and that’s good, but what are we giving up? What are we losing? Whatever happened to meaningful in-person face-to-face human-to-human communication?”

Lev Grossman’s essay in Time about Google Wave hits many of the same notes:

Google Wave is, in short, a remarkably full-featured collaboration and communication tool, powerful enough for enterprise customers and easy enough for civilians. It's also a warning shot across the bow of pretty much every software company anywhere. It's amazing how many people's grills Google is getting up into with this single product. It's real time like AIM and Twitter (and it can talk to Twitter by importing and exporting tweets). It's social and shares media, like Facebook. Anybody who makes an e-mail client or collaboration software should be paying attention to Wave. This is vintage Google: give away a product that does stuff your competitors charge money for, thereby burnishing your public image and, at the same time, sapping your competitors' will to live.

But Wave isn't actually an e-mail killer. In practice, it's more like an insanely rich IM client. E-mail is asynchronous; you can wait an hour or (if you are, like me, a bad person) a week to answer it. But because Wave operates in real time, it demands immediate attention like an IM or a phone call or, for that matter, a crying baby. When Wave is up, it's hard to focus on anything else. That isn't a defect, but it does narrow the scope of its usefulness. Getting more information right away isn't always the most efficient way to work.

This is how these essays usually go: this is really cool, but is it tethering us more closely to our computers? (Interestingly, Wave doesn't seem, at the moment, to be reckoning with the way more and more people are using smartphones to connect to the world.)

Nicholas Carr is refreshingly unambiguous on these points:

The flaw of synchronous communication has been repackaged as the boon 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. Welcome to Wave hell.

In this particular case I’m with Carr. I’ve only been playing around with Wave for a week or so, but I don't like the demands it makes — or will make, once enough people are using it to make it worthwhile. (Right now it’s like Union Station at 3 A.M.)

Why do I like Twitter and despise Facebook? Because Facebook is symmetrical — if you friend me, I friend you — while Twitter is asymmetrical — I can follow you, but you don't have to follow me. Why do I like email better than the telephone or IM or Wave? Because it’s asynchronous: I catch up on email when I can, not when you write, and I expect you to do the same. I can't do my work unless I have long periods away from the computer and the iPhone. Asynchrony is my friend. My best friend. My BFF.

5 comments:

  • Technology "experts" in the media are in the business of creating false necessities. "Twitter and Facebook are live; synchronous is better than asynchronous; ergo, one must ditch all "obsolete" asynchronous media." The same silly arguments are applied to physical books. "Because digital books exist, physical books are destined for the dustbin."

    What is most troubling about the Washington Post article is that it advocates swapping an open standard for monolithic services provided by single companies. Anyone can set up his or her own email server; indeed, to take email down, you'd have to take the whole internet down. On the other hand, when the Twitter fail whale appears, everyone's stuck.

    Finally, you "own" your email in a way you do not own your Twitter or Facebook communications; you can migrate your email to another service, download it to your computer, etc.

  • These folks read like bubble-headed cheerleaders for whatever software or technology they're paid to cheer for. They've also mistaken the tool for the content -- an obvious and perhaps banal error but also rather grave. If I want to talk to someone, I use the phone. If I want a thoughtful discussion or debate, I use e-mail. I use IM to chat with my hearing-impaired mother. And I always prefer an in-person conversation if that's an option. (I never use Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, or a smart phone.) I'm choosing my mode of communication, not having to subscribe to some communications medium prescribed by our new always-connected-to-data overlords.

  • savi phone

  • You have a Wave invite? I've been scrounging for it for days now! Alan, my friend, please do share it ... :-)

  • I would be happy to help you out, scritic, but Google's not giving new users invitations to hand out, not at the moment anyway. Apparently they'll "wave me" when I can invite people: http://is.gd/4t9BX.

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