“The young ladies of Frankford … have recently discovered that by holding a piece of tin against the iron foot-rests driven into the wooden poles of the Southern Electric Light Company they receive a weak electric shock, and almost every evening a group gathers around the poles that are not situated on the main thoroughfares and enjoys the fun for hours… One pretty miss was heard to remark, after her first experience, “Oh, I thought I was squeezing a handful of pins” “yes,” said another, “it’s something like being kissed by a young man with a bristly moustache.”
What do we mean by a technological intimacy? Is it about communication with intimate others? Or being intimate with technology itself? The original use of the word ‘intimate’ in TIZ referred to the irruption of a private, on-to-one communication in a public space. This has traditionally been signified by a form of architecture – a phone booth or other construction that makes it clear to passers-by that the user has stepped out of the public realm and into an intimate communication space. With mobile technology, these physical signifiers have almost disappeared, replaced by ever-shrinking mobile phones and ‘hands-free’ interfaces. The phrase TIZ was formulated to describe this new phenomena – temporary, intimate communication zones that are not architecturally signified, but instead performative – signified, if at all, by gestures as much as by products.
But the word ‘intimacy’ invokes a closed, binary relationship, where we know that mobile communication is partly public, even this is unintended. Privacy might be a better term, but privacy has become one of the most political terms in technological discourse, and the weight of these arguments overloads it for this context. But perhaps this discourse focuses too much on the huge discrepancy in scale between individuals and an abstract technological network, and not enough in the real space of human encounters enabled by these networks. Intimacy and privacy are not concepts that exist as binary oppositions (intimate/distant, private/public), but as a continuum that is negotiated socially and affected by specific contexts.
In Erving Goffman’s , “Behaviour in Public Places”, he describes the social and cultural factors that delineate ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ behaviour, and how these create protocols that should, ideally, communicate these boundaries to all participants. These protocols are incredibly complex, with nuances reflecting subtle changes in the make up of social groups, cultural norms or location. For Goffman, these protocols define different levels of ‘tightness’ or ‘looseness’ in social situations that describe how individual behaviour is either tolerated or proscribed:
“It would seem that there may be one overall continuum or axis along which the social life in situations varies, depending on how disciplined the individual is obliged to be … the terms ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ might be more descriptive and give more equal weight to each of the several ways in which devotion to a social occasion may be exhibited”
Perhaps these definitions of ‘tightness’ and looseness’ could valuably be transferred to debates about ‘intimacy’ or privacy in networked communication. Rather than isolating the individual as a node on one end of a network that is vast in comparison, we should understand that intimate and public behaviour exist along a continuum, where the local context is as important in negotiating concepts of intimacy or privacy as the global perspective. Just as a temporary, ephemeral message can attain status and longevity through their context – for example an accrual of attention or scale – so levels of intimacy or privacy are products of a complex, almost fractal, social discourse, negotiated between participants using body language, clothing and a host of other signifiers.
Technological intimacy is merely another level of signification along this continuum. Particularly in the real spaces of mobile communication, the technological network is just one part of a context that includes the architecture, people and events around us. Definitions of privacy or intimacy that only take account of the relationship between the node and the network look thin and naive compared to the rich sociological context of Goffman.