Friday, July 23, 2010

Orality, Literacy, Privacy, Identity

The ongoing JournaList fracas recalled one of my recent themes, namely, the differing faces we use in different areas of life and how the net threatens to collapse them.

For those not yet saturated in this story, it's roughly this: a group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and politicos had a private email list where they discussed matters of interest. Right-wing operatives managed to get access to the list and are leaking bits out of it that they think are embarrassing. Both sides are accusing the other of ethics violations -- the right is accusing the members of having improperly cozy relations between the press and the people they are covering, and the members are accusing the right of violating their privacy. At least one person has lost their job as a result.

I'm not going to comment on the politics or ethics because that's being done to death elsewhere. Rather, let me dust off my media theorist hat and talk a bit about the nature of online talk. Roughly, this whole brouhaha seems to stem from the fact that email lists (and other forms of electronic communication like Twitter) are somewhere in-between and share characteristics of both oral and literate communications modes. Obviously, they are superficially more like written language than speech, being composed of visual inscriptions rather than sound. And like written communication and unlike speech, they persist indefinitely and can easily escape their original contexts, as the JournoLists discovered. But they are also oral in that they have an immediate quality to them, they are uttered in near-real-time to particular audiences; they are "hot", and tend to be more agonistic than written communication.

The members of JournoList obviously treated the list as an ongoing bull session among like-minded colleagues and friends. And that is a context in which people say things that they wouldn't write into a published article. Contrary to the rightists screaming hypocricy, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this perfectly normal behavior, except that they journos misunderstood the technology, or were not able to accurately predict all the ramifications from their loose talk, like having stray remarks republished by hostile operatives four years later. Some of them said rather nasty things about Rush Limbaugh, for instance.

Here's an interesting attempt to define, as one of the main components of "technological literacy", an appreciation for the utter lack of private spaces for oral-style communication in the modern Internet:
Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate'™s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called "I Pee My Pants When I'm Drunk." What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas -- though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else -- something that might be more relevant to the student's qualifications.

"œWhat it tells me," Zvacek said, "‚Âœis that the student is technologically illiterate."
It seems to me that the current state of affairs must be some sort of unstable non-equilibrium. Oral cultures have been around for 10000 years or so, (small) written cultures for a couple of thousand. That's time for rules and conventions to stabilize, but the oral-written hybrid of network communication hasn't had time for that, especially since new variants of it are being constantly invented. Someday it will be understood what is allowed to be said where; there will be techniques for walling off particular kinds of communication so they don't leak out. If I had to put on futurist goggles to go with the media theorist hat, I'm guessing it will be common to have multiple unlinked identities for different purposes. Like I'm doing here. And as here, the identities won't be separated by some kind of cryptographically-secure firewall; rather, they will be more like social conventions, so that what you say in one role can't be held against you in another one.

[the title is a reference to Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word which everyone should read.]

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