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Skype – very cool indeed

So, Skype

I wrote three previous posts on Skype but didn’t feel like I really captured its essence. These posts have been deleted, the content expanded upon for this new post (great thing about blogging… you can delete it when you don’t get it right! I won’t do this in general, though…)

So, starting over:

I was given a webcam for Xmas (along with a Kindle – how twenty-first century!) … so we have been Skyping for the past few weeks, both with the band that Kim and I play in and with Sophie’s grandparents.

This (predictably!) got me thinking about how Skype is and isn’t like its clear predecessor, the telephone.

I read on Wikipedia that Skype has ‘663 million registered users as of September 2011… The volume of international traffic routed via Skype is significant. It has become the largest international voice carrier (by minutes of calls)’.

I also hadn’t realized that Skype was bought out by Microsoft in 2011 (and originally invented in Estonia). Very interesting.

Like the telephone, Skype enables people in far-flung locations to converse in intimate fashion; however with Skype, communication is via the Internet and in a variety of modes: text, audio, video (as well as file sharing). You can Skype from anywhere you have Internet connection – your computer, TV, mobile phone, iPad; as well as calling other Skype users, you can call landlines and mobile telephones, or – if you like – ‘you can chat and video call your Facebook friends directly from Skype’ (Skype homepage).

Like Facebook (and to some extent, Twitter), Skype is a (virtual) place where you can hang out and catch up, checking in whenever is convenient. There is something impromptu about the Skype meeting, just like the telephone call …

Unlike the very public Twitter (audience = everyone) and more private Facebook (audience = your friends and their friends), Skype positions itself as a social medium for directed, personal communication. Where telephone data is routed by local telephone exchanges, Skype ‘Unlike most V[oice] o[ver] I[nternet] P[rotocol] services … is a hybrid peer-to-peer and client–server system, and makes use of background processing on computers running Skype software; the original name proposed – Sky peer-to-peer – reflects this.’ (Wikipedia) Skype is the (global village) home visit, ‘getting together’, ‘dropping in’, also the untranslatable German Stammtisch, the regular table where a group of friends meet to drink and socialize …

Watching Sophie watching my parents on the computer screen I had an insight so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier: Skype retrieves television.

Television, telephone: both are what McLuhan calls ‘cool‘ media, i.e. low in definition, high in participation or ‘filling in’ of information by the audience. Telephone (McLuhan says) is an extension of speech; while television, he says in Understanding Media, extends ‘the sense of touch or of sense interplay that even more intimately involves the entire sensorium‘.

Isn’t Skype even cooler than the telephone, even cooler than TV (i.e. lower in definition, higher in participation)? Where the telephone facilitates the tete-a-tete, Skype facilitates multiple users, in fact multiple groups of users in multiple locations. Families, friends, business associates can audio/video conference; people can wander in and out of earshot/frame, joining the conversation at will…

A possible tetrad for Skype?

Extends: ‘getting together’, ‘dropping in’
Retrieves: television
Obsolesces: telephone
Reverses into: ‘dropping out’?

I initially imagined Skype might reverse into a ‘virtual reality’ shared space (conference room? bar? cafe?) where people participate in real-time with discarnate colleagues, family, friends … but then realized this is happening now, Skype is already the virtual meeting space. Suddenly my loungeroom opens right out to your loungeroom (with the kids playing in the background), or your office desk, or the bar/cafe where you happen to be sitting, having a coffee… Thinking of Skype as a place where you ‘drop in’ is the best clue to its ‘reversal’: speed-up would be the irritation of people constantly contacting, visiting your house (literally, an invasion of your personal space!), so reversal must mean a technology for ‘dropping out’, going AWOL…

(McLuhan used the term ‘drop out’ in Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out (1972) to describe the retribalization process … so he would perhaps see the Skype ‘drop-in’ as a form of ‘dropping out’!)

One last thing. The Skype website tells us that ‘Skype is not a replacement for your ordinary telephone and can’t be used for emergency calling’. How long will this last, do you think?!

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Michael Edmunds | February 11, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    CONVERGENCE! It boils down to analogue and digital IMHO. I just read some interesting Kittler and Mark Hansen views on this. Most of it was over my head, but it did point to the problematic of analogue and digital in some new ways including a discussion of silicon computing versus what they call quantum type computing. Their discussion blows off the human sensorium. I wonder where Skype is in these terms- an analogue of getting together or some new sense as in non-sense! Skype might morph into an implant a wireless connectoid in our chemical bodies. At first and then turn into the mind istelf without need of the chemical body. That’s what Kittler made me think today.

  2. Alice Rae | February 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I must read some of the discussion on this… I haven’t looked at it much before. (The digital vs analogue …)
    Makes me think of sci-fi fiction with the ‘wired body’ – Neuromancer etc…
    Also I keep thinking of Harry Potter… how people can get from one place to another using ‘Floo Powder’ travelling through a network of fire-places – Harry’s godfather Sirius Black sending just part of himself (his head) to deliver sage advice to Harry from the grate in the common room…… isn’t this Skype?!!! (a magical Skype!)

  3. Michael Edmunds | February 13, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Yes, Gibson’s sci-fi was a thrilling trip. (Wiki says published in 1984 btw!) Of course his hero still maintained a hardware interface. McLuhan’s collaborator Wilfred Watson a multi media playwright as well as an academic I think needled McLuhan in a way that ‘embodies’ the oppositions of analogue and digital in one of his plays.

    Are these two way streets that we go down when we release these new beast that slouch towards Bethlehem to be born, as Yeats might say?

    I’ve avoided Harry Potter.

    Keep up the posts. They are good probes.

  4. Alice Rae | February 15, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks – it has been good for me to try and articulate my thoughts!
    I think there is more to say on Skype reversal – in the direction you have said, in terms of the wireless body, I will revisit this sometime again I think…

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