L.M. Sacasas on instant messenger over instant messenger


Uri Bram: I'm very excited to be talking today to L.M. Sacasas, a phenomenal philosopher of technology.

We’re having this conversation over instant messenger, which is an unusual way to do an interview. And I wanted to ask you first about your relationship with this technology.

Personally it’s suffused with affection and nostalgia for me — my teenage romantic flirtations (I think "relationships" might be stretching it) were conducted very largely on IM, so it's always going to have a certain halo.

L.M. Sacasas: I can definitely see how that would be the case. I was in my early twenties when I first used instant messenger, so I missed having it during those formative teenage years. I think nostalgia is a good way nonetheless to characterize how I tend to think about instant messaging, I tend to associate it with the era of dial-up internet and desktop computing. Although, of course, there's plenty of instant messaging going on now in a variety of platforms on mobile devices.

Uri Bram: [just let me know in parentheses when you're done so i don't type over you!]

L.M. Sacasas: (Got it, that was it for that response, but happy to elaborate.)

Uri Bram: (ahahh this already feels very meta, figuring out the norms for an unusual interview format)

L.M. Sacasas: (Yes, thinking the same!)

Uri Bram: To go a little meta, you've got this really interesting piece called Questions Concerning Technology, which I recommend to everyone, and I wanted to apply some of those questions to instant messenger, and specifically to being interviewed over it

How is it affecting your experience of time? Is it arousing anxiety? Is it making you think more or less (or differently) than talking out loud would?

I realise, myself, that I'm feeling a little discombobulated, partly because the "norms" of instant-messenger-interviews aren't really established the way that the norms for regular interviews are

L.M. Sacasas: Right, I wouldn't say that it's arousing anxiety, but there is a bit of uncertainty and hesitation as we work out the norms or cues that we need to make this work well. There is a temporal dimension, but I'm thinking of it as a matter of rhythm. Ordinarily, there's a rhythm to the give and take of a conversation, which depends on reading silences. But that doesn't quite work the same way in this context. It's a bit harder to read silence if our bodies are not also present. And that, I think, is a good way to analyze a medium of communication, by comparing it to communication in a fully embodied context. From that perspective you can begin to work out what you need to supply in alternative ways in order to communicate more effectively. So, in this case, we've realized we need to indicate when a reply is done so the next person feels free to proceed. So maybe we can revert to telegraphic practices and type [Stop]!

Uri Bram: Ah that's so interesting, I would never have identified that but I'm absolutely feeling it

I'm even self conscious now about the difference between only hitting "send" after a paragraph, and between hitting "send" after each individual line of text

meanwhile, email often frustrates me because there is TOO much time to polish, it feels like I can't just say what's on my mind and work things out, whatever I send feels "final" in some sense I really dislike

and sometimes there's very long "silences" between my email and a reply, where I'm torn between feeling "this person secretly hates me" and "they just haven't got around to answering yet"

L.M. Sacasas: Right, I was thinking the same as I was typing and decided to type out a whole paragraph rather than the separate lines. It is interesting, of course, to see how not only user practices but also the platforms interface tries to solve for these issues. So, for example, we each see the familiar series of three fluctuating dots when the other is typing. This is a way to manage the anxieties of disembodied but synchronous communication. It's as if we need to be assured that the other person is still there. But then, we could over-interpret these, too. Why did they pause typing? Did they take back something bad? We can imagine that kind of thing going on. As you mentioned regarding email response times, managing the length of silence in these environments, where there's a certain presumption of immediacy, can indeed generate a bit of anxiety. I used to joke about text messaging that unexpected silence suddenly becomes "They hate me" or "They've died in a car crash." And again, I think that stems from the blend of disembodiedness and potential instantaneity.

Uri Bram: Yes I will say, in favour of IMRhythm, that watching your three dots gives me time to think again and re-consider what you just said, or what I just said

I'm feeling unusually aware of the branching nature of conversations, the infinite possible roads we could go down at any given moment

whereas I think if we were in person I'd be too focussed on having the correct Attention Face on while you're talking

L.M. Sacasas: One of my favorite lines from Walter Ong's classic book, Orality and Literacy, is "Writing heightens consciousness." I think that applies to what you're describing about the nature of conversation. Writing, that is externalizing thought in this quasi permanent symbolic way, makes us more aware of its nature and possibilities than the exchange of evanescent sounds. We can't quite lose ourselves in conversation the way we might in person because writing forces us to not only speak but also think about speaking.

Uri Bram: Yes this makes a lot of sense to me

how much of the work there do you think is being done by the quasi-permance and how much by the representational nature of writing?

if we were recording this interview on Zoom and then published it it would be roughly as permanent anyway, right?

L.M. Sacasas: By permanence I meant to get at the way it can stay visually before us. A recording on zoom presents a slightly different form of permanence, it's recorded so we can stop, go back, and listen again. But writing freezes the word in visual space. I can see it. It's externalized in a way that gives it an existence that is detached from me and from the moment. So I can, right now, scroll up and down our conversation and see it all before me in a way that is impossible in in-person contexts, a multi-syllabic spoken word is already partially gone before it is fully spoken, and even recorded audio. So I'd say it is the permanence of the aural word rendered visual.

Uri Bram: oh wow, yes, I see that

it reminds me of an experience I have a lot where I'm searching for some relatively obscure word in my email inbox, for some reason

and it'll throw up about five results total, and inevitably two of them will be the archived versions of the two major instant-messenger-relationships of my youth, which got so long that I guess they contain most of the words in the English language eventually

and it just surfaces this weird, unexpected, decontextualised slice of a long-ago conversation -- frozen in visual space, as you say

and there is so much about the technology and the way it is designed that makes that even be possible, and which I take for granted, but which I feel is surely shaping things as deep as how I see myself and my past and my identity

L.M. Sacasas: So, first another meta-comment ... I couldn't type it while you're three dots were going because I didn't want to interrupt your train of thought (ellipses do interesting things in these contexts!) ... but I've noticed that as compared with a spoken conversation, exchanging textual messages in this way pushes me toward a greater degree of polish and completion with each response. In person, there'd be a more natural give and take, I think. You or I might jump in to help flesh out a thought, or gesture in ways that lets the other know the point was clear enough, etc.

Regarding your experience of turning up old conversations, yes, this is a really profound function of writing, which, of course, we tend not to think much about because we're so used to writing we hardly think of it as a technology at all. But if we think again about how writing externalizes thought then we can see why Ong suggested that it heightens consciousness. It allows us to see our thought out there, as it were, rather than simply experiencing it "in here." And it is me that is somehow out there, like your teenage self in those conversations. So, what matters about writing, and I realize we're far afield from the particularities of instant messaging, is not only that it allows communication at a (spatial and temporal) distance but also that it is a form of externalized memory (something Plato seized on, rather critically, in the Pheadrus). So it can impact our experience of the self profoundly, creating the encounters with past selves that you described and even generating a degree of self-consciousness that would be hard to imagine otherwise. Diaries, of course, did much the same thing. That all of these archives of the self (textual and visual) are now searchable databases will be undoubtedly consequential to the history of the self.

Uri Bram: You know, I hear people say a lot that they "think through writing", or that "you don't know what you really think about something till you've written about it"

But you're making me think more seriously about that, why it would be

And I suppose I feel like usually I do my best thinking through conversation, that the unexpected inputs I get from other people help me think new thoughts and discover new ideas in myself (even beyond the thoughts and ideas that I learn from my conversation partner)

Which is making me think that what I really hoped for in an Instant Messenger Interview was that it would combine the best elements of both thinking-by-writing and thinking-by-conversing, and (unsurprisingly!) I'm not sure it's really done that

L.M. Sacasas: I am one of those people! Those exact words have left my lips. I think that's the case precisely because writing is not natural, it forces you to articulate yourself in ways that we ordinarily wouldn't have to. The limits of writing push us toward greater clarity of expression, and, consequently, greater clarity of thought. Of course, this isn't a necessary outcome, lots of writing can be just as jumbled as our thinking. But in my own head I can convince myself that I know more or less what I mean and I'm not forced to put my thoughts in an order and form that would make them intelligible to someone who can't simply intuit what I'm thinking (and, honestly, a lot of our own thinking is not necessarily propositional anyway). So when we are forced to encode out thoughts intelligibly into the written word, we are forced to clarify, which means that we might catch our own errors or inconsistencies. It may also mean that the focus we are exerting will push our thinking further down paths we might not have come to otherwise.

Now I also agree with you about conversations, they also push us in the ways that you suggest. And they can have lingering effects. Maybe as I recall the exchange hours or days later, new avenues of thought will emerge. Interestingly, writing might be framed as a simulated conversation insofar as you have to, at least tacitly, fictionalize an audience. In that fictionalizing of an audience you might begin to imagine objections or questions that can push your own thinking further along—they are also your own thoughts, but they've arisen out of a context in which you are engaged in a simulated exchange with an audience of some kind.

So, both writing and the face-to-face exchange have their advantages with regards to thinking. Both can serve us well. As for this half-way house we're in right now, it may in a way capture some of those advantages. I'd have to think a bit more whether it combines the advantages or undermines them by creating the blended experience ... best of both or worst of both. There's probably not an absolute answer to that. In this case, I've been glad to think together with you and enjoy the moment of reflection in response that writing affords. That said, I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to chat in person!

Uri Bram: Ah, likewise!

It's been such a pleasure talking with you, and you've left me with a hundred interesting things to think about, as I always feel after reading you

Can you please tell our readers the best places to find you online? And the best place to start for new readers?

L.M. Sacasas: Thanks so much, Uri. This has been great. I publish a newsletter on Substack (who doesn't these days!) called The Convivial Society. That is the best place to keep up with my work. I use the newsletter to reflect on the fascinating relationship between technology and society, broadly speaking. I've published pieces elsewhere, including Real Life and The New Atlantis, so readers can search the archives there for some of my work. I'll mention, too, that I am also working on a book-length version of those 41 questions you mentioned earlier that will be published by Avid Reader Press.

Uri Bram: Oh amazing! Really looking forward to the book. Thanks so much for coming on, this has been a delight, and I do recommend to everyone to check out L.M.’s newsletter (which also has a podcast version), it really makes you think.


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