Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Carbonated Communication

I often stumble upon ideas for these posts while crashing back and forth between waking and sleep; dreams, events and memories bumping into one another - struggling to find a cogent narrative. In this morning's episode I found myself at a large, professional, academic meeting; a venue I no longer frequent. But there I was, expected to present my paper to a large, obviously enraptured, audience - good evidence that this was, in fact, a dream. But my laptop had been stolen and I had no hard copy of my paper, only the conference program with its title: Carbonated Communication. I ransacked the room until the program chair, who was a dead ringer for an old professional antagonist, announced to the suddenly present TV reporters, that "Dr. Schrag's paper has been withdrawn!"

Going back to sleep was not an option. So I got up, made coffee, and sat down in the morning room to pick the dream apart.

The title of the paper, Carbonated Communication, gave me my first clue. A few days ago we had been watching The Iron Chef, and the secret ingredient had been "Halloween Candy." Yeah, I know.  For the first time I can recall, I felt no envy for the judges. But both chefs used something called "carbonated candy." This is apparently a new incarnation of Pop Rocks from back in the 1970s, only now they "effervesce on the tongue." The old fear that if you ate them while drinking a carbonated drink your stomach would explode, seems to have dissipated. They are now sparkles that disappear into nothing leaving only a hint of flavor behind. OK, got that.

So, maybe the second piece was also a foodie thing. Yesterday, I was listening to The State of Things program on WUNC radio, over in Chapel Hill. The host, Frank Stasio, was talking with cookbook author Michael Ruhlman and food writer Kelly Alexander. One interesting idea they explored was the notion of a "lost generation" of cooks.  Apparently, in the 50s and 60s a generation "forgot" how to cook. The culprit, they opined, was that the cool new suburban appliances did it for us. Frozen dinners and packaged meals, TV trays and microwaves. We didn't cook so much as we opened, thawed, nuked, served and tossed everything that was left over into the trash compactor. The lessons once handed down from generation to generation faded. The old way became passé. So now, the authors asserted, cookbooks have to teach the basics, we must learn anew the "complexities" of boiling eggs, roasting a chicken, baking biscuits and making gravy - oops, preparing a sauce.

Alright, now what I think might have been the third part: Last night I invited a recent graduate back to campus to speak to my graduate seminar, "The Place of Text in the Digital Age." She was going to talk about a variety of digital tools the students might find helpful in constructing their final projects. The guest had created a "digital media resources-resource" as part of a directed study with me a couple of years ago, and I knew she had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things digital. She arrived even more amped than usual, which is hard to imagine. Seems that she had just gotten a job offer to work on an "AR Project" [Augmented Reality - think, your smart phone overlays Yelp restaurant data on top of the street you are viewing through the phone's camera. A website that lets you put the dress they are selling on a picture of you, so you can see how you look in it. The "heads-up" view pilots get of the instrument panel. That sort of thing.] with a very hip, very high end Design firm in NYC. She was as close to giddy as a very hip, very high end, digital design person can allow themselves to be. She talked with incredible knowledge about beta versions of digital message construction and distribution applications of which I had only the vaguest knowledge. The ideas popped and sparkled. And maybe that is what my lost paper, Carbonated Communication, was going to talk about:

I worry that in our current fascination with the pop and the sparkle of digital in-your-face, on-the-screen communication, we are forgetting how to communicate ideas and feelings thoughtfully, with depth. I am concerned that Twitter is our microwave, that Facebook is the trash compactor. We slip things with amazing speed across the glittering surface of the Internet - microblogs, the image of the instant, the tune passing through our earbuds right now! They effervesce, sparkle and disappear, leaving only a hint of flavor behind.  I am afraid that a decade or two down the road someone will have to "discover" the elegance of prose, the power of poetry, the awesome complexity of the analog novel. I am afraid we will have to reinvent all those wonderful wheels because we will have become lost in the snap, crackle and pop of carbonated communication.