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Delusions of Reference: They’re Not Talking To You

It was the most plausible explanation for the banal content of many of the tweets flowing through the real-time stream. As Clay Shirky explained, in his book Here Comes Everybody, it’s simple, they’re not talking to you.

And it’s easy to deride this sort of thing as self-absorbed publishing—why would anyone put out such drivel in public. It’s simple. They’re not talking to you.

The confusion comes from the mash-up of personal communication systems and broadcast systems. It’s like mixing up the radio and the telephone. In this new hybrid medium, person-to-person, or person-to-group, messages are generally broadcast, but specifically targeted. While you can hear them if you eavesdrop, they’re not talking to you. Lacking the context, relationship and history, the 140 character revelation about what someone had for lunch appears to be pure drivel. But why should I care? You shouldn’t, they’re not talking to you. You’re just within earshot.

Shirky’s explanation seemed to make the world safe for drivel, even un-targeted drivel is an act of production rather than one of passive consumption. Saying anything at all appears to be better than consuming mass quantities in silence.

In the mash up of radio and telephone, each has taken qualities and capabilities from the other. So while we may now safely disregard random comments about lunch, we still have a creeping feeling that maybe they are talking to us. At least someone, or something, seems to know an awful lot about us. And they say they’ve put together a special message just for us.

Avitel Ronell, writes in The Telephone Book, about technology, schizophrenia and electric speech — The telephone rings and creates a debt of obligation. The sound of the bell has a sense of urgency, it asks you to get up out of your chair and pick up the receiver. Now broadcast systems seem to ring: it’s for you…

…And yet, you’re saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly, sometimes irreversibly. Your picking it up means the call has come through. It means more: you’re its beneficiary, rising to meet its demand, to pay a debt. You don’t know who’s calling or what you are going to called upon to do, and still, you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?

In the new radio-telephone combined medium, the Network is placing a call to you. Is that what that ringing sound is? Is that why we feel an obligation to process the overwhelming torrent of the real-time stream? The meme of floods of information engendering paralysis and unhappiness is at its zenith. Your voice mail is full and the phone keeps ringing. All the lines in the system are ringing, impatiently waiting for you to meet your obligation.

Walking down the candy aisle in a chain drugstore, the selection is immense. Are all the candy bars placing personal calls to me? What do my augmented reality goggles say? What about the people in my follow cloud, can they provide a reference for any of these candy bars? Let me check my personal data locker, have I tried and liked any of these treats before? Do I qualify for any discounts if I check in and register my location? Candy bar selection is just a matter of having the proper filters in place for the real-time stream of information that encloses the world.

In the real-time, always-on Network, there’s a simple test we can take to see if we’re operating normally and optimally in the new environment.

1. Have you ever heard voices or other sounds when no one is around?

2. Have you ever heard voices commenting on what you are thinking or doing?

3. Have you heard two or more voices talking with each other?

4. Has anyone been watching or monitoring you?

5. Have you seen things in the media that seem to refer to you or contain a special message for you?

6. Have you ever felt your thoughts were broadcast so other people could hear them?

7. Have you ever felt thoughts were being put into your head by some outside force?

You might recognize some of these test questions. They’re from the Scale For The Assessment of Positive Symptoms. The scale is designed to assess positive symptoms, principally in schizophrenia. Prior to the advent of the real-time multi-touch ubi-comp Network, positive responses to these questions may have been considered a sign of illness. Now they’re common user experiences for those operating within social network hubs.

In fact, as Jeffery Sconce notes, we may soon be given thorazine if we believe that the world isn’t broadcasting special messages just for us. What was once called a delusion of reference is the new normal.

We walk around with an entourage and the world organizes itself to flatter our egos. We are celebrities of the Network, everyone and everything wants just a moment of our time. They’ve given our thoughts and desires special attention and have a special offer to give us at just the right moment. Because, you know, it’s not advertising if its the right offer at the right time. It’s simply the fulfillment of a desire. And if it’s a desire you didn’t know you had, so much the better. The Network knows what you want before you do. Just because celebrity is now a commodity doesn’t mean that you’re any less special.

One way to manage the vast expanse of this new personalized Network is to apply Sturgeon’s law. The law simply observes that 90% of everything is crap. Even a filter that randomly deleted 90% this new wave of information would probably improve its overall quality. Since we publish everything and edit later, perhaps we’ll just hang up on nine out of ten callers and see what happens. If it’s important, I’m sure they’ll call back.

Of course we could just flip the model on its head, rather than accepting any incoming calls, I could only place outgoing calls to the things that match up with my true desires. Of course, this assumes that I am the author of my own desires, and that I know what I want.

Slavoj Žižek, in an analysis of Donald Rumsfeld, comes up with the crucial observation here:

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know-which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

The name space of the Network seems to put everything on equal footing. Everything has a unique identifier, a phone number you can call. Everything is illuminated, everything is a known known. But in fact, the reason we can’t simply place calls to satisfy our true desires is because our desires are not perfectly illuminated. We are filled with unknown knowns. How do we place a call to fill an unconscious desire? Once we’ve checked everything off our list, how is it that there’s still a longing for something more?

We exercise a form of blindness as we categorize the Id as just another special interest group in the long tail of the Network—another keyword, another search term. While Google’s SafeSearch plays the role of the Super Ego, cordoning off the Id from children and polite company, the Network fills up with our unconscious desires. The calculated self, the simulacra derived from the patterns of our information exhaust, misses the dangerous, passionate undercurrents that flow beneath our rational conversations, negotiations and transactions. Some see the Network as a global mind, but they never speak of, or to, its unconscious.

We’ve passed from delusions of reference to personal phone calls from the Network. Yes, they really are talking to you. But like the alien characters in the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, we misunderestimate our own unconscious (beware the monsters from the id).  We’ve gone from the delusional idea that the world is sending us special messages to an augmented reality where the world really is sending us special messages. We’ve undergone a strange normalization to schizophrenic reality. The unconscious writing on the world is replaced with a system printout. And yet there still seems to be a problem with the messages. They only coordinate with the gadget in us—the part that can be fully expressed with a database entry—never taking into account the darkness at the edge of town.

Published in culture desire difference identity network user data zettel


  1. Wow! Awesome! Love the inclusion of the Forbidden Planet. : )

  2. […] you could trade it for valuable gifts, discounts and prizes. While this model does work, it only works for celebrities. The network celebrity hub with high numbers of links gain even more links through the phenomena of […]

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