Greek Mythology and a Big Yellow Taxi

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone?”
                —Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell
Roberta Romagnoli – Flickr

One of the biggest ironies of being human is that perspective comes after an event that requires perspective has already passed.  Our language is rife with references to this sometimes tragic phenomenon, from the obnoxious commentary of the “Monday morning quarterback” to the “20-20 vision” of hindsight.   Even the Ancient Greeks got in on the irony with the creation of Cassandra, who possessed both the gift of prophesy and the curse that no one believed her.  They understood that the wisdom of distance—the “meaning making,” if you will–occurs after an event, not in the moment.

This does not, however, mean that humans have not been busily striving to close the gap between the moment and meaning. The Greeks gave Cassandra her name because it means “she who entangles men.” If we weren’t obsessed with reaping the benefits of understanding what was going on, while it was going on, why would we be so fascinated with movies about time machines?  In the adult education world, this desire to “understand” while we “do” plays out in Donald Schon’s conception of reflection-in-action, or the ability to adapt what you are doing while you are in the midst of the action.  There is some controversy over whether Donald Schon is right—can people actually reflect and act simultaneously, or is reflection-in-action really a series of rapid cycles of action then reflection then action?
Take a moment to reflect on communication (or even watch the short movie I’ve embedded below–it’s one of many on the history of communication that you can find on YouTube).  Communication is a form of meaning making…we communicate some aspect of our experience of an event so that we can understand–or remember or reflect on or learn from–what just happened.

Communication as a technology began when individuals began making verbal and bodily gestures towards each other about their environment.  Over time, text-based communication evolved, displayed on cave walls and on paper, but it was considered a very different thing than what happened in face-to-face interactions.  Nineteenth century European letter writing offers a great example—people did not write the same way they spoke.  There were conventions to be observed—the order of things, the words used, the emotions conveyed—it was a distinctly separate entity than what happened in face to face interactions. And why wouldn’t it be different?  It took two weeks to a month to deliver a letter, whereas it takes seconds to have a face-to-face conversation.

But Cassandra ensnares us.  Humans are always striving to close the gap between the moment and the meaning.  Along comes email and instant messaging.  Suddenly, in an email, we are faced with a situation in which we have both the temporal immediacy of face-to-face communication and the timeless, record-keeping quality of the written word.  At first, all conventions went to hell in a hand-basket and all sorts of miscommunication occurred until the importance of nonverbal aspects of face-to-face communication was recognized and made explicit.

Nimbuzz – Flickr

Out of this recognition came new conventions associated with instant messaging.  Do not write in all-caps unless you really are yelling.  Adding emoticons to email is for everyone trying to convey nonverbal clues, and not just for little girls who dot their “i’s” with hearts.  Email is great, but it lacks the nonverbal component…it still requires us to have conventions (like emoticons) to make up for that deficiency.  We were closing the moment-meaning gap, but we weren’t quite there.

Enter social media.  The 2014 NMC Horizon Report states that social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we think and learn.  I couldn’t agree more, and for a great synopsis, see my colleague Britt Watwood’s amazing blog on the topic.  But hypertext-rich blogs, drawings, video and audio logs, annotation abilities, collaborative components of software…all those facets of new media literacy are allowing us to communicate verbally, nonverbally, and receive and adapt to feedback almost immediately.  Mobile devices like iPads make it even easier for us to take the “meaning” to the “moment” by always having those technologies in our back pockets, or at least in our backpacks.   Wow.  Have we actually managed to close the moment-meaning gap?

Camera Slayer – Flickr

But let me throw a wrinkle into this success story I have going on here.  My husband, my two kids, and I watched Richmond’s July 4th fireworks from Oregon Hill this past year.  It’s a great spot from which to see the fireworks—on the side of Manchester Bridge overlooking the Virginia War Memorial.  Halfway through the fireworks, some young, merry twenty-somethings joined us…not to actually watch the fireworks, but rather to take selfies in front of the fireworks.  The time they spent lining up the shot and trying to time the selfie just right so that it occurred with the biggest firework burst…I appreciated it from an artistic perspective but almost kicked their collective butts as they were obstructing my then 5-year-old daughter’s view.  I did my maternal duty (vigorously…no one messes with my girls–be forewarned), but I continued to reflect on their behavior for months after the event.  Social media has the potential to meld “moment” and “meaning” but do the ancient Greeks, with their tales of Cassandra, have it right?  Does Schon have it wrong? Are humans capable of blending the two?  Will humans still be able to enjoy the fireworks in their own right, or will they be relegated to the back of our selfies?   

Update: 2/6/14: One day after I wrote this blog I found this Clay Sharky Ted talk.  I think it offers a related but different take on the concept of simultaneous documentation and living in the moment…
http://embed.ted.com/talks/clay_shirky_how_cellphones_twitter_facebook_can_make_history.html

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Nice post, Laura. Has me trying to juxtapose this idea with one you posted on Twitter last week – http://t.co/XMYQYt5vGq – the idea of “reflection”. Is reflection needed for meaning making…which implies a necessary time gap.

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  2. Laura Gogia says:

    Thanks and I get what you are saying about reflection. These new technologies allow us to create content so quickly that the little meaning maker within each of us is jumping up and down, dying to make content even as we experience the moment. Does this impair our ability to live in the moment? What if there was a way to live the past, present, and future at the same time so that we could reflect and act simultaneously, but as richly as we do when we do it in a linear fashion. Excuse me while I have a Star Trek moment…

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