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Gchat, The Pale King, and Constant Bliss

December 29, 2011

In the most recent issue of n+1 Magazine, “Chathexis” chronicles the history of conversation, beginning with 17th century salons and ending with the video chat. Besides being an entertaining read, the essay is spot-on in its assessments of how communication has evolved online. Chatting, the editors write, evolved first from the bizarre and anonymous AOL version to, after a vacuum, Gchat, where our chat windows stay up against our inboxes while we work, integrated into our very real personal lives.

But as embedded into our routine as Gchat has become, “Chathexis” points to the ubiquitous orange idle sign as a kind of shield with which we deflect our friends. After checking the Oxford English Dictionary entry for “chat,” the editors lament, “What anguish, when the definition of chat implies the desire not to chat!”

Video chatting, which once promised to surpass the normal kind by finally bringing face-to-face interaction (and therefore intimacy) to the computer, has failed to fulfill its promises. “Where have we had our best conversations?” the essay asks. “When we were sharing a booth with someone in the back of a dark bar, or lying in bed, or walking somewhere, or nowhere at all, our faces turned in the same direction: outward, toward the world, into which we moved forward together. We arrive at a shared perspective when we do, actually, share a perspective—when we take, quite literally, the same view of things. There are no such moments in video chat.”

And yet, underneath our idle statuses and sterile video chats lies potential for real intimacy.

“Chathexis” gets to the heart of the matter when it quotes Suzanne Necker saying “the secret of conversation is continual attention,” but ultimately may place too much credit on Gchat itself.[1] Gchat is not the real hero here, but rather it is the potential for us to pay attention to it.

As David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King unfolds, the ability to remain “present” in any given moment emerges as a central theme, the weapon against incredible tedium. Among the notes Wallace’s editor found and placed in the back of the book is this:

 It turns out that bliss-a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious-lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.

“We are happiest when paying attention,” the editors write, and this gets at something deeper than some kind of tired “Power Of Now” mantra. For online interactions to maintain their meaning, in order for us not to be swallowed by the onslaught of life-altering technology that integrates itself into our lives on a monthly or daily basis,  tedium and  mindlessness must be combated with constant attention. Only then will our communications be worthy of comparison to a dark bar or a bedroom; only then is there any point in the first place.

[1] “Chat’s immediacy emphasizes response, reminding us that we do not simply create and express ourselves in writing, but create and express our relationships. Gmail—simultaneously salon sofa and locked secrétaire—stores the proof forever” and “Gchat holds out the promise of “free commerce between the sexes” (Hume), which will surely be a feature of any utopia worth the name.”

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