Unwritten rules

Yesterday’s post was about the odd sensation of having an idea, neglecting to write it down, and then forgetting the idea – while still recalling that it had been really cool. So why don’t I write down ideas as soon as they occur to me? Generally because they usually occur to me while I’m in the middle of a fascinating conversation with a friend.

Up to now I haven’t thought it socially appropriate, while in the middle of such a conversation, to pull a pen and piece of paper out of my pocket and start scribbling away. At the very least I’ve always felt I would be disrupting the rhythm and flow of the discussion. At the worst, I worry about sending an inadvertent signal to my friend that I’d rather be jotting off some note to myself than listening to their fascinating thoughts.

I can see two possible solutions here: One is to come up with some social etiquette that would make it all ok. Something to say along the lines of: “Wow, this topic we’re discussing is so cool that I’ve got to write it down, because I’d like to think about it some more.” In other words, deliberately drawing attention to the act of writing, as a way of reassuring the other person that they are indeed important to the process.

Another way would be to invent some form of stealth writing – a way to copy down a thought without needing to take a time-out. This has the advantage that it doesn’t get in the way of the conversational flow. After all, an announcement that you are taking notes seems likely to kill spontaneity.

Over the last day or so, I’ve found myself working on this latter solution – a simple way to type up some notes without needing to take my eyes off the person I’m talking to. Interestingly, On an ethical level I find this perfectly acceptable, whereas I would find it appallingly unethical to surreptitiously make an audio recording of a conversation. There is clearly an ethical distinction here, but what is it exactly?

I think the difference is that writing something down, even in a stealth way, is still in the category of organizing your own thoughts. You indeed have the right to do that. Notes that you jot down are simply prosthetic devices to help you traverse your own mental map of the world – like tying a string around your finger. So when you transcribe thoughts from one part of your mental map into another, you are doing so within your own legitimate mental turf.

But once you make a surreptitious recording of the other person, you have stepped onto their turf. They have every right to expect that their act of conversing is a one-time performance, intended for an audience of one – you. You might be within your rights to convey their thoughts to the world at large (unless they’ve told you not to) – but you are not within your rights to convey their performance of those thoughts – that was never part of the conversational bargain.

2 thoughts on “Unwritten rules”

  1. What about emails ? Do you think it is unethical to keep emails you received from friends ? (not passing them around — just keeping). A debate I had with a friend and we did not manage to come to an agreement. He was using the conversation recording argument saying it was the same as keeping emails. I would love your opinion on that !!!

  2. I regularly use skype for hour-long conversations with my programming mates, family in other cities, and Uni students for group assignments. I use Pamela to auto-record everything that is said. At the start of the conversation Pamela chimes in with the “this conversation is being recorded” which usually triggers a discussion the first time it comes up, but then once people understand that I use it to review what was said as an “audio memory” they are comfortable with that. I have attempted audio recordings specifically for broadcast, but the participants are the collaborators and know that the conversation is destined for a larger ausdience.

    What I’m hanging out for now is a simple and effective speech to text translator to make the whole conversation searchable. If I found a good one I’d have no dramas recording the majority of my life, getting to a state of ‘always on’. To me this is just another extension of microblogging. Stripping down communication into a new medium of open social with privacy

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