A while back, I wrote a post in response to re-reading an interview with Marshall McLuhan. It described the way that the printed word created a portability of culture beyond the immediacy of face-to-face communication. However, print also introduced a coolness to the cultural exchange by removing many of the subtleties, like intonation and gestures, from the exchange. I argued that “hotter” technologies, like audio and video, paired with a new ease in sharing them were creating a neo-tribalism that could be practiced at a distance.
A few things have happened recently that caused me to revisit my thinking, and I realized that modern technology is enabling these new exchanges across two dimensions: 1) People can share the same temporal experience across a virtual space, and 2) they can share the same spatial experience while incorporating experiences from another time. There are a few examples to illustrate my point:
Same Time, Different Place
It used to be that you had to be in the same room to yell at the TV with your friends in support of your favorite team. Sometimes, you might dial up a friend to express your displeasure over the phone. Now, between Facebook and Twitter, you can broadcast your feelings about the ref to your entire circle of friends in real-time. IntoNow takes this a step further, allowing you to connect and share with a group of people who have self-identified as viewers of a show. It effectively extends your family room across the entire web.
In music, services like turntable.fm and more recently Facebook “Listen With” allow you to recreate when you and your friends took turns fighting over the CD player at a party. We are able to collectively experience music and share comments in real-time. Listening to music is a such a visceral and immediate experience and, today, technology allows us to experience it together in near-real-time at a distance. Technologies like Skype and Google Hangouts allow us to speak to each other face-to-face over great distances with very little delay and in a manner not abstracted by the printed word. We get all the immediacy of tribal communication without the need to be co-located.
Same Place, Different Time
Another way we’ve been able to stretch consensual experience is by attaching information to a place to be consumed at a later point in time. Hobos created a system of symbols to mark a location. They used these symbols to denote, among other things, whether or not a place was dangerous or safe for the next hobo to arrive. Pearls of wisdom have been left in bathroom stalls or on cave walls since the advent of recorded history. In fact, much of what we know about Roman history is thanks to the graffiti left by the residents.
Today, Foursquare allows you to check in at a location and leave a tip. Subsequent visitors to that location can view your tips and maximize their enjoyment of that location. Apps like Yelp or Citysearch allow for more in-depth critique of a service or product provided by a business. I regularly use Yelp to find the best alternative when I’m in a new place. We can share our experience of a place across the thread of time.
To take it a step further, location-aware technology allows us to tag our photos and videos with geocoded data. As a result, we can search for and filter media based on location and pull up content created within a specific radius of where we stand. Apps like Layar can overlay that content in augmented reality. It is possible to look through a window in time and view someone else’s experience of a location, adding color to your own experience.
The Pithy Summary
Back in the day, what happened in the tribe stayed in the tribe. That’s because cultural exchange was limited to the “Here & Now.” The printed word allowed for a portability of culture, but the abstraction of the exchange into symbols removed some of the visceral nature of the culture, limiting it to the “There & Then.” Modern technologies have expanded the range of “Here” and have made the “Then” immediately available in the “Now.” As a result, our experience has expanded, allowing us to participate in visceral, tribal exchanges of culture in a “Now” beyond the “Here”, and a “Here” that’s both “Then” and “Now.”