Don Sillence

Therefore, Send Not To Know For Whom The Phone Rings…

[Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]

How do you know someone is talking to you? Maybe they know to use your name. Maybe they just look at you. Maybe there are metacommunicative strategies – tone, volume, proximity; cultural context, body language. Maybe they just say hello.

Hullo? Hullo.

The point of telephony, historically, is that we are – have been – connecting with those we wanted to communicate with; when somebody’s got your number, so to speak. In a way, this/that maps (or networks) our understanding of telephony along a pretty predictable path – sender to receiver, message received, loud and clear and relatively simple. The technology that brought the world together, that brought us the switchboard and the rotary, the answering machine, call waiting, the mobile and the smartphone. Precious few wrong numbers, in the scheme of things.

All of which is to say that it might now be smart for us to stop calling them ‘phones’ as making phonecalls is hardly the primary use for the technology, as it’s utilised. Or as advertised. Now it’s all display resolution and processing speed, how much data you can use up and the strength of the network connectivity and how good the current… five or six… cameras are…

The future of the technology of telephony (or whatever we want to call our new interface) is fascinating and the implications of time of flight sensors, augmented, virtual and mixed reality and the cultural politics of environment and economy coinciding entirely (with/)in the object/value of data is all desperately important for our understanding of the field and medium (or, again, whatever we want to call our theoretical interface). It’s also a little bit beside the point.

First thing’s first, the point is this. You know someone is talking to you when you decide to listen, or, to put it another way, the ‘message is received’ when you decide to take the call.[1]

There’s a standard bit of analytical thinking that runs ‘the letter always arrives at its destination’, an idea we adopt from Lacan via Zizek.[2] On the level of the imaginary, we imagine ourselves to be the person who the message is intended for and thus become subjects who are addressed (if we ignore the message then it was never for us in the first place). This is also taken up on the level of the symbolic, in that we, ourselves, are the audience we ultimately address, that the meaning of our words and deeds ‘bounces back to us’ in their consequences, echoes, in the reactions of others.[3] We not only always say more than we mean to, but we are also unaware of those meanings until the message is ‘returned to sender’, its original addressee.


At the Google I/O 2018, Sundar Pichai unveiled the latest addition to Google Assistant[4], a piece of programming that allowed users to make phonecalls in the Assistant’s ‘voice’ “seamlessly in the background”. On a call to an unsuspecting hairdresser, the artificial intelligence (AI rebranded as an IA, ‘intelligent assistant’) mimics human speech patterns and seemingly effortlessly chooses between multiple options on behalf of their user.[5] This heralds a tipping point in telephony, where non-human agents are set to become the primary entity with which future humans will endeavour to communicate through and with.

Let’s listen.

[Play Google I/O 2018 short version YouTube clip: 3:10 – 4:04]

Hereafter and therefore, we need to talk about the ways we are being taken care of. Sundar’s vision[6] of the future (however recently passed) can be understood through his characterisation of the process by which we become accustomed to AI/IA. Google (sometimes) calls it: “Suggested Actions”, how “…and with one click…” your next decisive act is… only a click away. Here’s another example from the I/O. Sundar says:

“By the way, AI can also deliver unexpected moments; so, for example, if you have this picture, cute picture of your kid, we can make it better, we can drop the background colour, pop the colour and make the kid even cuter. Or if you happen to have a very special memory, something in black and white, maybe of your mother and grandmother, we can recreate that moment in colour and make that moment even more real and special.”

The crowd cheers.

Even the dead will not be safe[7], as Walter Benjamin, was wont to say. These are not unexpected moments, this rewriting of reality. And it would not have surprised Benjamin at all, whose enemies had never ceased to be victorious, and yet who nonetheless paradoxically believed we could instead rub history against the grain and thus bring a revolutionary spark back to everyday life.[8]

[1] A point I often reiterate with my students – nobody teaches you anything, you just choose to learn.

[2] Jacques Lacan is too important to Slavoj Zizek to be considered a ‘symptom’ of his thought; it’s probably more a Plato</>Socrates-type thing. In any event, there are similar paths from Althusser, Foucault, Gramsci and Butler (and others). All roads lead us to roam.

[3] There’s an interesting tussle here between Bateson’s argument for metacommunication in terms of play/fighting and Lacan-Zizek’s insistence that there is no metalanguage. Whether frames are negotiated (Bateson) or only notionally overlapping is a problem for philosophers and not one shared by artificial intelligence (algorithms produce, or account for, a threshold of satisfaction; they do not produce ‘right answers’; see Gillespie, 2016, pp. 20, 23, 27; see also Frederick Steier’s ‘Gregory Bateson gets a mobile phone’, 2013).

[4] For those keeping track of the timeline we’re in, the Assistant was announced two years prior.

[5] Google I/O 2018. The first video is a condensed version for a TLDR/FOMO generation.

[6] We use the last names of theorists and peers out of respect and familiarity; we use the first names of tech billionaires to humanise them.


[8] I know he wrote ‘brush’. (Bringing the spark back to light was another option, al-most-ly discarded.)