Thanks to the swift action of the Hedgehog editors, a short essay of mine, “Just Staying in Touch?,” was added at the last minute to the current (Spring 2018) issue because it fit with the theme of the central section of the issue, “The Human and the Digital.” The piece reflects on the fate of “phatic communication” in discussions of our digital times. I trace the notion of phatic speech from its origins in the work of the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski to its adoption by the linguist Roman Jakobson to its current favor among social scientists who study social media. In that sequence, I realized as I compose the piece, we can see how the changing mediascape of the last one hundred years has drastically changed our expectations about and ways of explaining communication. My comparative method revealed an aspect of Jakobson’s “phatic function” that, while lying in plain sight, doesn’t seem to have received much attention in the subsequent scholarly discussions of his famous paradigm, “the six functions of the speech event.” And that is: Jakobson’s account of the “phatic” obsesses over the consequences of telecommunications (“tele” meaning “far off”), specifically the telephone. Because of space considerations, the editors had to cut the diagram of the functions and their corresponding “factors.” The latter are capitalized in the image above, the former appear below. The essay is currently paywalled, but don’t worry, patient reader, that wall will come down soon enough.
Now, the essays in “The Human and the Digital” section are not paywalled (or should we say, hidden behind a blank hedge?). All four are rewarding reading, though the first, Leif Weatherby’s examination of Warren McCullough’s “digital metaphysics” will be most useful to those have a done bit of background reading on 1) cybernetics and 2) German idealism. Students! Parents! Educators! You people need to read my pal Alan Jacobs’s contribution, which raises terrific questions about how we manage our digital lives and includes a checklist of basic skills that every young person ought to learn so that he or she might become a responsible citizen of the open Web. Edward Tenner, another contributor, is still doing his historically-informed weighing of the digital age–in this case, mulling the rise of seeming internet monopolies. And Christine Rosen, who wrote this essay on reading and screens ten years ago, offers a layered reflection on how our digital lives are shaping our emotional horizons (or lack thereof) and selves.
Happy reading, booktraders!