On the need for an around which

I'm sick, and have been for more than a week, so this isn't going to be as well written as I would like.  And yet, I've not been able to get a thought out of my mind for the past few days, so I'm going to begin to work with it, and hope that it will get picked up by others, or myself when I'm well again.

My twitter feed is filled to overflowing with people at SXSW talking about, well, mostly talking about nothing and trying to find each other and spamming me with "I'm here!" via foursquare.  It's a steady wave of failed expectation, the ugliness of realizing that this isn't even better than the real thing, and planning precluding presence.  I thought Brian and Eston best captured the feeling of what's implicitly moving through the web this week.

While I have never been to SXSW, I have been to numerous gatherings like it.  I know what it's like to rub shoulders with your peers and heroes, to experience the context switch of the online become face-to-face.  So what's it like to suddenly step through the medium, to stand in the gaze of the other, to be present for the phenomenon?  That's an interesting question.

A friend of mine, who is something of an internet celebrity, after being mauled at one such conference in Europe, observed to me: "Some people need to be mediated by a computer screen."  It was pretty ridiculous to watch people stand around him and jockey for his attention--an active attention incapable of coping in the same way the passive attention of the web allows.

Why isn't it possible to gather with our followers, social network friends, etc. and channel the ease and fluidity with which we interact online?  Why can't we pickup where the online conversation left off?  Why can't we coalesce without the medium of the web?

I would argue that we lose track of how the online encounter functions if we focus too closely on the web.  If the online encounter works at all, it works not because the web is virtual reality; rather, the online encounter with the other works because it simulates the encounter around the table.  The encounter around the table--across the threshold, backs to the world, intersecting gazes, the journey in stasis while we sit (or recline), share, sup--is fundamental to the possibility of a knowledge that invites friendship, of a friendship that leads to knowledge.

The table is the point around which our encounters of one another can be shared, where the paths of those we follow, and who follow us, form an orbit, and move from noise into communication.  The table is not a prop in this phenomenon, but integral to its existence.  The table is both where we prepare and partake.  It is exactly the right size for what it does, and cannot be scaled.  It is intentionally less than we need in order that a we can emerge.

Sitting at our computers, our gaze alternating between eye-level and the surface before us, the web allows us to try on the posture of the meal around the table with friends.  The table is that, around which, we are first able to move from encounter, to friendship, to knowledge.  All interaction is mediated, the real and the virtual.  The other is always other, but less so when seated across the table.