#101: Telephasic Workshop

A while back, I wrote a newsletter about “liveness” in media—how the synchronous, collective experience of watching something in real time, shared by millions of viewers across the country or around the world, has traditionally corresponded to our definition of what “TV” is. Now, of course, television is the most atomized and asynchronous form of mass media—however many people watch a given Netflix show, they aren’t watching together at the same time, and even if they were, they wouldn’t know. The remaining exceptions to this transformation of TV include sporting events and prestige shows like Game of Thrones, which is the exception that proves the rule, the functionally extinct white rhino of a medium that is dissolving along with theatrical blockbuster movies into an "endless, insatiable content stream.” Twitter, I argued, is the real TV now—the place where you experience liveness, where news breaks, where unpredictable events happen, where the illusion that “everyone is watching” persists, and also where you annotate your consumption of slower traditional media (even NFL games are arguably not exciting enough without social media augmentation).

Twitter is the mass media hub of the internet or its so-called public square, where we entertain the myth of a single unified reality even though it’s mostly dominated by a small subset of power users, but even Twitter goes against the grain of current online experience. If Netflix represents solipsism, the place you go alone to shut down at the end of a long day, there’s an even larger spectrum of internet platforms that counteract that: social media, messaging apps, and collaborative tools that we dip into and out of hundreds of times a day to hang out for a few minutes at a time. In these spaces, coming and going is so frictionless that they’re not synchronous either, although they feel that way during the brief time you’re there. The emergence of scheduled online events paired with offline activities, like Peloton or HQ, seems like an experiment in imposing temporal discipline on this way of existing, but maybe those products are just meeting a basic human need for doing something with a lot of other people at the same time.

Conventional wisdom suggests that meatspace—getting outside of the house and being around other people—is a durable bulwark against the asynchronous experience of reality, the surefire way to share collective experience in realtime, but lately the physical world has actually felt less synchronized than digital space. The maturation of the mobile internet has yielded a multitude of tools, from AirPods to dating apps to Instagram, that mediate and despatialize our ordinary usage of public space, creating the illusion that we have less in common with the person sitting next to us than the people whose messages we haven’t read on ten different apps. Even going to a bar to watch football is a reminder of this, once you notice that everyone around you is rooting for a personalized configuration of fantasy players rather than one team or the other. The enduring popularity of physical-world events—concerts, festivals, protests, and other containers—attests to the same desire for collective experience that we express online, but outside of those exceptional situations, large-scale shared reality is less attainable without digital mediation. Maybe this is why augmented reality remains such a vital possibility: It’s one way we might reimmerse ourselves in the public realm, with the same technology we used to vacate it.