Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I'm losing you

This amateur linguist has developed an interest in collecting the expressions we use when technology interrupts the anticipated smooth flow of events. Take phone conversations as an example. Mobile reception is notoriously patchy on trains as they weave their way through tunnels into cuttings and alongside tall buildings, so you’ll regularly overhear high-powered business conversations or the more informal everyday domestic exchange interrupted with 'I’m losing you' or 'You’re breaking up'. These are interjections which in another context might seem rude, incongruous or even incomprehensible. Another example is when colleagues are giving a presentation at a conference or seminar and their slideshow suddenly goes pear-shaped and delivers the wrong image. Some complex and abstract theorizing will be abruptly juxtaposed with 'That shouldn’t have happened' or 'Oops! I’ll just go back'. These disruptions have a humorous dimension, but the mere fact that we don’t usually laugh or take umbrage when they occur reveals something important. That is, they are so common place that they have become quite unremarkable. No-one I know has misinterpreted 'I’m losing you' (it's not a life or death matter or a signal that a relationship is about to terminate) or I’m sorry I’ll have to go back' (back where - step backwards, go home, go back to basics?). There is in fact a shared understanding that these things happen. Things go wrong. And these represent the moments when the transparency of technology shifts and, perhaps only for a moment, the medium itself comes into focus. Talk shifts from the mediated topic to the topic of mediation. I’ll be cutting out in a minute...I just missed the nail and hammered my thumb... Am I losing you?

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