Beyond Chat

Beyond Chat

Noah Wardrip-Fruin

The subject of conversation enters the conversation that is First Person, here in section seven.

There are differences between holding a meaningful conversation and simply emitting words in one direction or another. Because of these differences, computers are much better at the latter, and in fact can probably not hold a conversation unassisted. Even chat software doesnít do much to support real conversation ó as evidenced by the ease with which bots employ it ó though users find ways to use such software toward meaningful conversational ends.

To think through these issues involves considering how we create meaning, how we create technology, and the contexts of our lives in which communication and technology meet. The three essayists collected here consider these issues in depth, not simply for the sake of analysis, but also for intervention. Their interventions include developing new software for understanding online conversations, creating a new community that takes the lack of time for online communication as a topic, and critically examining the forms of offline communication we have with (monologue-prone) voice chips.

These essayists incorporate perspectives from a broad range of disciplines, from artificial intelligence to art, and practice through a variety of theories of communication and cognition. A touchstone for two of the three is the work of theorist/practitioner Lucy Suchman, which has been highly influential in recent discussions of computationally connected objects that speak. Suchmanís work helps us understand what we might mean by interaction, either with a computationally driven object or with another person through a computationally supported interface. As she writes in her response to Natalie Jeremijenko (invoking Emanuel Schegloff), interaction is a term for the ongoing contingent coproduction of the sociomaterial world. This is much more than ìtalking in a conversational manner on different subjectsî ó this is much more than chat.

Warren Sack, this sectionís first essayist, takes up the challenge of moving beyond chat software for what he calls Very Large-Scale Conversations (VLSCs) ó which include Usenet newsgroups and large listservs. His Conversation Map analyzes and visualizes VLSCs, helping users understand what is being produced and how they may wish to participate. He is followed by Victoria Vesna, whose n0time is the product of several generations of projects that call into question popular assumptions about the nature of online communities and embodiment. n0time extends this work into the boom/bust of millennial angst, dot-com frenzy, and cybernetic hyperfeedback ó creating proxy bodies that both collect possibilities for interaction and are destroyed by them. The final essay, by Natalie Jeremijenko, creates an initial typology for understanding our encounters with voice chips ó of both speaking and listening varieties ó and proposes some insights that may be gained by examining this reductio ad absurdum of conversation, this less-than-chat.