Google wave theory

The technology formerly known as writing is/was a hack on the spatio-temporal limits of speech. In the study of said writing we have relied upon Newtonian-Cartesian notions of space-time. As we know by now (for those who have missed earlier episodes of new media: an adventure in rhetoric), these technologies have led us to rethink spatial relations, temporality, linearity, etc. It used to be that if I wrote something, the US postal service would ensure I would have at least a week to rest before having to bother with you writing back. If I were writing a journal article I would have the even more gentlemanly waiting period of several months to a year. (Actually that part hasn't changed much.)

Playing a little fast and loose with physics for metaphorical purposes, let's just say that wave theory altered "our" understanding of space and time. I put our in scare quotes b/c I'm not sure who that really includes. Generally speaking most of "us" get by just fine in the Newtonian clockwork world and Cartesian world of familiar geometrical shapes (neither of which technically exist anymore than the tenuous link I just made between physics and google wave).

But my point is that Google Wave could easily disturb one's conception of how symbolic behavior functions. Maybe it is that revolutionary or maybe it is no more revolutionary than Second Life or YouTube or Seesmic or Twitter. Any of these might have disturbed you. Anyway, here's my experience with Google Wave (after my first time): I have no idea how to do this. I consider myself a reasonably adroit rhetorician. I generally know where to put the commas. But this Wave thing is tough!

As an investigator of these emerging technologies, what interests me is the emergence of rhetorical conventions. How do we remediate past technologies? How do we take the wide range of potential behaviors and distill them to what is acceptable?

So, for example, I opened a public wave on rhetoric/composition. I tweeted about it. I posted in Facebook. And a couple people showed up. Over the period of a couple hours, we posted 80+ times. In that space, the experience of gwave is something like chat. Except that gwave is threaded, so there isn't a uniform timeline like there is in chat. Of course that is a limited concept of Google Wave b/c it is also designed to work in an asynchronous way, as an alternative to email. But even in that one possible use of Gwave, there were interesting questions. Do we write simultaneously? You can edit other people's contributions: how should we do that? People are contributing up and down the thread at the same time. As a user following one exchange, you would likely be unaware of contributions happening elsewhere.

For me there are a few key questions, which really might be asked of any new technology.

  • What activity does this replace or supplement? I.e., what would you have done elsewhere that you will now do here?
  • What new activities will we generate? What new responsibilities, powers, obligations? E.g., responding to student emails or creating status updates.
  • What ethos will result? What new questions of behavior must we answer?

To return to where I started, I do not wish to make grandiose claims about Google Wave. I'm sure there's plenty of that to go around. Similarly I'm sure there will be plenty who would be happy to pronounce that Google has fallen flat on their face with this development. However, I do think that Wave is a step on the way to rethinking the spatio-temporal relations of symbolic behavior.

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