Time, Proximity And Meaning On The Net

Playing At Not Answering

Communication channels on the net have mushroomed owing to the vast improvement in synchronism and simultaneity. Many observers consider this an impoverishment and a step backwards with regard to chronologically separate functionality, viewed as a series of predictable states in an ordinary question/answer cycle. In particular, many have stressed that, in instantaneous and multi-point communication, the stability of communication codes has been jeopardised by the perceptive impact accompanied by dissipative time frames. The latter are, in fact, so undisciplined that, if and when, messages reach their destination, the time seldom coincides with users' expectations.

Netsurfers, however, are attracted by this absence of time margins which enables them to find many answers on the net without having to know their origins and without necessarily being able to predict when these answers will arrive. In this permeable and elastic time dimension, availing of inefficiencies and delays on the net, surfers can engage in simultaneous activities, using overlapping and alternative paths. Digital technology permits the user to interrupt the relationship between time, image and individual sensory and motor mechanisms. This can be seen in the greater mutability of subjective profiles on the web, and actually explains why netsurfers are so tolerant of time warps during communication. The encounter with new technological artifacts forces individuals to change their mentalities, by learning new rules besides partially forgetting old habits.

It is becoming increasingly true that the introduction of a communication formula in instantaneous and multi-point communication systems will depend more on the rapidity and on the sharpness of the user's subjective judgement than on efficient synchronism and coherent information. This judgement is bound to become a dominant factor owing to the nature of the risks present in simultaneous and multi-directional communication. Users will have to know how to move, how to experiment, how to avoid cycles of hypnotic solicitations, so as not to be distracted by signals that are momentarily stronger or excessive, so as not to yield to pressure from whoever has been able to communicate on the same channel. In this context it is difficult to agree with those who think that the conditions for communicating lie in technical balance and certainty rather than in the subjective conditions at the root of the interaction. Communication technology is always conditioned by the recognition of the differences and similarities between the interlocutors.

Nevertheless the degree of evolution of a technology should be considered in proportion to its ability to take into account the rhythm established for communication cycles, the practice of allusion and provocation and man's capacity to understand what cannot be explicitly communicated. These aspects, rather than being expressed in predictable paths, are often guided on the web by a wish to differentiate the interlocutors' ability. Why should this surprise us? Omission, repetition, deferral and dilution of messages have always differentiated communication styles, corresponding to subjective modulations widely practised everywhere without causing scandal. It is correct to believe that subjective modulations are physiologically accentuated by the interaction mechanisms of the net: the act of entrusting a message (assuming that there is a receiver who is able to and wants to reply) should appear to be a temporary result, open to improvement. "The act of writing is intensely local, for, although we may be certain of an audience, we are unable to verify its existence just as we are unable to verify its interpretation of our writing"1.

It is no longer a matter of verifying the degree of efficiency (or adaptation) of the latest alphabetic technology, but rather of insistent searching for unpredictable counterparts that can never be fully interpreted. In the discontinuous reality of multimedia spaces, attention spaces are far more important than conceptual constructions, and the organization and selection of each element involves new skills in order to discern the different qualities, both symbolic and discursive, of data structures 2, which are formed thanks to the salience effect of their own components 3. For this reason, the meaning of a "single" answer to a "single" question cannot be fully encompassed in the lines on a page covered by tiny, ordered letters. Being unpredictable, it cannot be compelled to manifest itself, not even as a belated revelation.

Non-Paper Points of View

Many worries about the expansion and contraction of waiting (and listening) times seem to reflect a strong dependence on paper publishing habits, which need incompressible amounts of visual space and fruition time regulated by visual/linear paths 4. Is the pollution caused by pages and pages of text alone the right visual standpoint for judging the efficacy of the communicative resources of web sites? After all, information offered by images requires slightly less time than that needed to decipher written texts, and some interactive environments even offer musical feedback 5. Furthermore, editing tools have made all types of material accessible, allowing the modification of the parameters concerning contemporaneously the visual, lexical, syntactic and semantic aspects of a message.

Such practices, which require the expansion, the study and remodulation of attention spaces 6 are changing the overall features of comprehension, revolutionising the life cycles of documents, but they are also eliciting the reassessment of the regulations for the start of a dialogue. The subjects who live on the net, instead of taking the similarities and differences to be overlappings or invasions, now take them to be a game of invitations, of metamorphoses and suggestions. And it is for this reason that, on many web pages, subjects who believe they need no mediation to express themselves come into play: they are encouraged to reveal themselves across a variety of contexts, and thus compelled to embrace the idea of an identity that can be periodically revisited. So, while some identities hide or change, causing informative black-outs and communication overlapping, others play at creating new identities on the net, revealing themselves through entirely dreamt-up actions 7.

Together with exploration and discovery, what would appear to emerge as the dominant characteristics of communication on the net, are the manipulation of contents, the materialisation (in different contexts) of identities provoked by the need not to offer univocal conclusions. Besides, when the conditions of a conversation offer no immediate benefit there is some advantage in rejecting the frustration of a permanent and rhetorically pre-defined self. Experiencing a situation of multiple narrative possibilities amounts to starting paths which may involve overlapping, and even different, times 8. Speculating about time and perfecting the awareness of where, when and who we are, means learning to accept the vast range of transactions offered by the net; it also means thinking and using cyberspace as a dynamic and malleable extension of oneself and others, poised between perturbation and compensation.

D. De Kerckhove and P. Levy sketched the traits of collective intelligence well. They described it as composed of a combination of personalities engaged in a task of mutual metabolization; they all meet in an auto-centered and multiversal space, where their psychic expressions are led to modify their existential coordinates in continuation. Because of the infinite plurality of relating forms, time completely abandons the metaphor of the river that flows, and acquires a metamorphic liquidity: "In a region of cyberspace, time itself may pulse, now passing faster, now slower". Time allows fluctuating and ethereal relations to be forged, and immaterial architectures to be set up, "which breathe, pulsate and transform from one form to another" 9.

The mobile and immaterial architecture of cyberspace leads communication away from a sequential and linear style, compelling subjective time to flow again and again around decisions already made, to modify phases and implications. This causes a combination of known properties (density, priority, linearity, parallelism, ramification and circularity), and creates complexes of temporal intervals with different orders. Moreover the freedom to plan the rules for the transformation and for the temporal variation of cyberspace scenarios has also been compared to the composition of musical events 10: just as features of scenarios can be defined, changed and reorganized by repeated intervention on process frames, similarly, digital techniques can contract infinitely small intervals of time-matter, and likewise develop the possibility of crystallizing and reorganizing sound-matter 11.

To The Last Node

A relational distance with others, experienced as telepresence, has led to the homologation of the expectations of dialogues within a relational proximity based on groups of communities on the net and crossed by individuals with partial, fictitious and manipulated identities. We cannot be sure whether "one" presence on the net may still be seen as the expression of a single identity, but we do know that the various connotations of that "one" person will, however, be perceived through the same interlocutor's capacity to reflect, interpret and summarize.

This means that the rules of engaging in conversation are changing from a declarative model to a negotiational one, during which the dialogue patterns between not necessarily authenticated entities have to learn to organise themselves through the interpretation of signs and mutations. Every interlocutor uses his own negotiation strategy, at the end of which some conflicts can be resolved; but "if those conversing influence the outcome by providing inaccurate information, there is the risk of some negotiation protocols being relatively unstable" 12. This is even more accentuated when one of the "constants" on which the negotiating protocol is based, is removed. On the net, the phases of definition of interaction strategies, traditionally described by using the theory of games, are subject to further complexities deriving from the changed concept of time. Time, in fact, has become one of the protocols to be negotiated.

Every experienced surfer knows he has to face an infinite range of experiences and communication profiles; he also knows that the cultural tools he has to use are becoming increasingly less "personal" because they are more and more widely used, and that, paradoxically, they are more and more inalienable. This awareness seems to give rise to the sense of belonging to a community, strengthened by the perception of an ideal map; the abstract, yet topologically perfectible image of all the innumerable selves, stretched out, right to the last node. In this scenario even the most striking contradictions can co-exist and can be reconciled through constant readjustments of the scale of importance of subjects and messages, and readjustments in pace and time of communication.

Sharing knowledge between sender and receiver depends on the actual feedback times and on the time scale of mutations of habits of a community 13. While, in the interactive dimension of the net, the scaling of listening time may assume a pattern of its own, deriving from the interlocutor's reactions and from the flexibility in the communicative sessions. That is why I suggest inattention and waiting should be recognized as techniques to be used to filter background net noises or to avoid the hammering tam-tam and the invasiveness of explicit messages. Thus, it may become possible to propose a less dramatic interpretation than that of Paul Virilio, regarding the "inertia" manifested when faced with the immediacy of information, of the lost memory of the computer, which threatens to strike at the heart of man's conscience" since "when faced with rapidity of information and the consequent relinquishment of physical movement the teleactor risks losing the memory of what can be acquired by travel..." 14.

This sense of loss can be overcome; after all, manifestations of plasticity, unruliness and discontinuity of communicative repetitions are the effects of a process of revisitation and discovery, an upheaval extending from the perception of contexts to awareness, increasing the knowledge of the nature of time frames. In other words, indefiniteness forces individual awareness to direct the processes of temporal reasoning through non-coercitive, predictive logic. This means that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, certain conclusions may be reached, but the possibility of retracting remains, should contrasting evidence be produced 15.

Searching On The Net

Digital technology produces time that does not flow, a matrix time 16 which makes it possible to effect any change whatsoever on crystallized time-matter and to simulate temporal paths that can be further modified. On the web, these characteristics permit significant intervention on the architecture of medial spaces 17. That is why these spaces overlap, are discontinuous and free from any restrictions of irreversible temporality. On the web the specific pliability of time-matter permits the interlocution models of on-line communication. It habituates us to a new cognitive style based on the prerogatives of short-term memory and trains us to consider not to take the permanence of contexts and meaning so much for granted.

Being on the web means being inside areas that intersect realities permeated by a continuous flow of sensorial connection and disconnection, and navigation through the net means crossing sensorial zones that are subject to a continuously changing cross-reference system. We know that the question pattern indicates the path through different semantic fields. Nevertheless, faced with a situation of constant migration of meanings, any research risks a loss of meaning, a re-interpretation of all the known data or a conflict of meaning.

It is a significant fact that the themes of bewilderment, conflict and involuntary displacement came up, over and over again, in the final selections of the WWW sites participating in the Linz Prix Ars Electronica. In the field of artistic communication, the idea of being catapulted out of a context comes very close to being a result achieved thanks to continuous stylistic innovations. Many web sites, which have become linguistic and expressive workshops, systematically propose sudden changes of semantic and perceptive frameworks as a means to improve awareness of new conceptual and emotional connections. If shocks, "a prevailing form of sensitivity in the great industrial age" 18 can become a basic part of our experience, we should not be surprised that the need to be outside ourselves, to be something "different"to what we think we are, while we continue to be exactly that, is becoming socially acceptable behaviour. But unlike oneiric experiences, where the ego is at the same time involuntary actor and spectator of its own mutation of identity 19, subjects surfing on the net knowingly accept a methodical scission of the ego. This explains why they avoid sequential communicative paths, and why they confide in the non-permanence of frames.


1. Jones, N., The semantics of Computer Communications, Et Cetera 45, quoted from Reymers, K., in: Identity and Internet: A symbolic interactionist perspective on computer-mediated social networks. Part 4, 1998, http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~reymers/identity.htm.

2. Trumbo, J., A Conceptual Approach to the Creation of Navigable Space in Multimedia Design, Interactions of ACM, July & August, New York, 1996.

3. Reymers, K., Identity and Internet: A symbolic interactionist perspective on computer-mediated social networks, 1998, http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~reymers/identity.html.

4. Gingher, R. S., Hypermediated Reasoning and Cognitive Dissonance, 1997, http://www.uncg.edu/~rsginghe/metastat.htm.

5. Prix Ars Electronica Linz, Webcollider, http://audio.apana.org.au/collider/collider.html; Etoy - http://www.etoy.com.

6. Rushkin, D., Playing the future: How Kid's Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos, Harper Collins, New York, 1996.

7. Turkle, S., Life on the screen: Identity in the age of Internet, Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1996.

8. Magnani, L., Ingegnerie della conoscenza, Marcos y Marcos, Milano, 1997.

9. Novak, M., Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace: First Steps, edited by M. Benedikt. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

10. ibid.

11. Lazzarato, M., Videofilosofia - La percezione del tempo nel postfordismo, Roma, Manifestolibri, 1996.

12. Robinson, W.N., Volkov, V., Supporting the Negotiation Life Cycle, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 48, N. 5, New York, 1998.

13. Draper, S.W., Design as Communication, Commentary on Borderline Issues, Human-Computer Interaction, Volume 9, pp. 61-66, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1994.

14. Virilio, P., La velocite assoluta, 1996, http://www.mediamente.rai.it/home/bibliote/intervis/v/virilio.htm.

15. Magnani,1997.

16. Lazzarato,1996.

17. Novak, 1992.

18. Benjamin, W., Ecrits francais, Gallimard, Paris, 1991.

19. Bodei, R., Frugate nei sogni vedrete il futuro, Corriere della Sera, RCS, 12 agosto 1998.

Dante Tanzi works at L.I.M. (Musical Informatics Laboratory), Computer Science Department, Milan University.