The Intellectual Situation
Someone who wanted to know how we live might ask how we talk. Madame de Rambouillet talked in bed, stretched out on a mattress, draped in furs, while her visitors remained standing. Blue velvet lined the walls of the room, which became known as “the French Parnassus”: a model for the 17th- and 18th-century salons, where aristocratic women led male philosophes in polite and lively discussion.
Talking, of course, is nothing new. But conversation, in the 17th century, was a novel ideal of speech: not utilitarian instructions or religious catechism, but an exchange of ideas, a free play of wit. Thus the hostesses of the Enlightenment received visitors in a new kind of furniture. In 1667, the Gobelins tapestry-weaving workshop became Louis XIV’s official furniture supplier. Previously, fabric—like Madame de Rambouillet’s velvet—had been confined to walls and clothing. The Gobelins were the first to apply it to chairs, which for many long, uncomfortable centuries had been small and hard. Now they were wide and soft—more like beds. The fauteuil confessional, for instance, had wraparound wings against which the listener might rest her cheek, as the priest had done behind his screen. Listening and talking became even easier in the 1680s, with the introduction of the sofa. Seating for two! For the first time in history, people could sit comfortably together indoors for long stretches—thereby making it easier for them to speak comfortably together for long stretches. Thus was conversation enshrined—en-couched—as a vehicle of Enlightenment, fundamental to the self-improvement of civilization.
Face-to-face exchanges continued in the exchange of letters. As the salon had the sofa, “written conversation”—as one style manual called it—had the desk, another invention of the 17th century. For men, there was the bureau—a big, heavy table for conducting official correspondence. (From bureau comes “bureaucracy.”) For women, there was the secrétaire. Unlike the flat bureau, the light, portable secrétaire featured stacks of shelves and cubbyholes, which were kept locked. Some writing surfaces slid outward, like drawers. Others opened from the top, as if the desk were a jewelry box—or a laptop.
If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is chat?
In the early days of the internet, chatting was something that happened between strangers. “Wanna cyber?” millions of people asked, and millions answered: Yes! On AOL—as of 1994, the most popular internet service provider in the US—half the member-created chat rooms were for sex. AOL also launched the first mass IM interface, which was where the real action happened. Each conversation appeared as a flat, white square on your screen—it was like having sex on a tiled floor. But at least it was someone else’s floor. Signing off was like walking out of a public bathroom. Nobody knew where anybody went: answers to “a/s/l?” were likely lies, screen names universally inscrutable. Because AOL permitted five screen names per account, it was possible to use one for strangers, another for friends. Before the introduction of the Buddy List—in 1996, dubbed the “stalker feature” by AOL employees—you could come and go without any of them noticing.