The Art of the Pause

By: Peggy Nelson
May 11, 2010

Breaker 1-9.

Of course I learned The Hustle. We all had to learn it. I don’t remember the steps now but the single was my first 45; oddly, it does not “hustle.” It flows right along like it has all the time in the world. Which the seventies didn’t feel like they had — much time, or much of a world. They were about crisis, about broken dreams, about conspiracy and loss and cataclysm. Who can go with that flow? You’d better be running — driving — before the oil, or the ideas, ran out.

The social networking technology of the time was, briefly, CB radio. It was mobile, cheap, easy; perfect for Getting Somewhere. Public assembly-at-a-distance fit neatly into our paranoid pragmatism: turn on, tune in, connect. All from the comfort of an isolated car or kitchen, without risking in-person disappointments and surveillance. But despite a vibrant subculture that went hugely mainstream for a moment, the mainstream did not maintain. Subsiding back into its sub-, CB never obtained the social strength of Twitter and texting.

The hustle held it back. CB radio relied on speaking rather than writing, and speech is built for speed, for immediacy. And while this lends more weight to its reality, it also increases the pressure to perform. What if you don’t have the perfect thing to say? What if you’re not “on” when you flip the switch? Too late, time’s up! With technologies of immediacy, after the first tentative forays, the reaction is to wait, wait until you’re ready. But since topics in social networks are often provoked by participation in the medium, waiting cuts you off from the flow. And then avoidance becomes default and the wait becomes reality and the radio is parked, unused, on top of the fridge or down in the basement.

Current forms of social networking are asynchronous and written, which means, in a certain sense, the pressure is off. In Facebook, Twitter, texting and our other digital assemblies, we write. We post when we are satisfied with our phrasing, and we read at our leisure, perhaps some time later. Performance anxiety is lessened enough by this so that people find all sorts of things to say, and even clever ways to say them. And the more they participate, the more they have to say; the conversations gain momentum, and the networks gain strength.

We edge right up to the asynchronous asymptote with so-called “real-time” chats and IM. But significantly these are still written, and written messages carry the length of their journey within. We may flirt with the real event horizon, although mostly, we stand well back. And we don’t cross it. (Until, that is, we decide to stop social networking for the moment and attempt to actually be social. But of course that’s a different technology entirely.)

Could it be that in our hyperlinked, networked, and accelerated world, we’re actually practicing the art of —the pause?

10-4 on that, good buddy.


Art, Read-outs

What do you think?

  1. Thanks for this! It always gives *me* pause when I read that term “real-time,” because of course most of those so-called real-time technologies precisely aren’t, as you point out. Even in a chat, it’s fine to leave for five minutes and then come back with your comeback.

    I did hear recently some statistic to the effect that 90% of text messages are responded to within 90 seconds or something like that, but still. Still.

    Also, the hustle sure does look a lot like the Macarena, doesn’t it?

  2. You should have included a picture of my CB jargon wastebasket

    I lost it in the 80s but bought it back on e-bay

    Not sure if that is ironic in this context

  3. Nice, Peggy. I think the ultimate CB movie is not a Burt Reynolds joint but Dennis Hopper’s OUT OF THE BLUE (1980). Know it? I also want to point out that there can be plenty of time lag built into RL chat. Try talking to my Californian relatives, for example, who seem to chew over everything I say, perhaps translating it into and then back out of some native dialect, before responding. Or try talking to someone who’s multitasking…

  4. The lag is always there—what Peggy’s saying is that we’re fooling ourselves to think we can overcome it with “instant” technology. I love the idea of texts as little time-pills, coated in packet-switching protocols that make them easy to swallow. Red pill, or blue?

  5. Amanda – thanks! Yes, there is that significant “but still,” even in IM’s 90%/90 seconds. Just knowing that you *could step away is key. And steps – it also seems like the Electric Slide! I particularly liked that the guy’s head is cut off as inessential, through the entire demo.

    Josh – those Californians *do speak another language. When I lived out there I even compiled a cheatsheet to aid in translation (with diacritics indicating sustained eye contact). But just because some speech can be laconic, and some text exchanges can be very fast (but not immediate), does not take away from their essential differences as *platforms.

    As Matthew points out, the lag is always there with written communication despite the hype about speed, and I’m arguing that it’s the lag that has encouraged massive adoption and use, not just by the digerati, but by everyone. There are incredibly interesting, sometimes counterintuitive stories in our technologies, and they’re not always the ones we’re telling ourselves. Time-pills – exactly! Carrying spaces through the space in time.

    In a way, we don’t need to check out to that cabin in the woods (of course showing up at Mrs. Emerson’s nightly for dinner – and wifi), we’ve built breathing room into the very format of our exchanges, into the pictures of words, into the transliterative merry-go-round between seeing and reading and knowing, and imagining, and writing back.

    Tim – I keep going back and forth. It wasn’t ironic when you acquired it the first time. (Spencer Gifts? You got all the good stuff!) And it *would have been ironic if you had acquired it for the first time decades after its heyday, like I did with “The Ungame.” But since you once had it, and then re-acquired it after you “knew better,” aesthetically speaking – maybe that’s that journey back to authenticity through the lack thereof? Haha – well, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a journey back to AWSM.

  6. My CB handle circa 1977 was “Ice Box Raider.” Cuz I was a fat kid. When I danced I didn’t do the Hustle so much as the Slow Bustle. Like there was a tiny gravitational pause at the end of each hip-thrust…

    Great item, Peggy!

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