Musing about Capillary Conversations

There’s something I find truly fascinating about the way we converse. At home, when I was growing up, the house was always full of people, of different ages, speaking different languages (primarily English, Tamil and Bengali), waltzing between bilateral and multilateral conversations. At school, it was more of the same, except the ages were less diverse, there were fewer bilateral conversations, and the languages were English, Bengali and Hindi. The college canteen exhibited similar characteristics, as did that Mecca of college canteens, India Coffee House, College St, Calcutta. Photos below courtesy of Lecercle.


The location didn’t matter as much as the way conversation flowed, how the adda worked. How the participants in the adda provided emergent governance and kept things moving. Of course you had the bores and the bombasts, but somehow the adda coped with them. Managed them, digested them, ejected them. And flourished.

Talking about addas, here are a few definitions that I’ve tried to cull from the article I linked to above:

adda n.

the fine art of socialising
relaxed conversation about anything and everything
one of the favourite pastimes of the people of Bengal
where elders used to discuss their politics at a local place
literary sessions usually rounded off by the serving of exquisitely prepared snacks and cups of tea
a dense fog of cigarette smoke, an assorted aroma of food and coffee, and a loud hum: the sound of several addas
a stream of visitors from early morning to late evening
serious, articulate and dignified elderly men deliberating on a serious topic
my grandmother regally presided over her own meetings
every topic under the sun was discussed, and of course family gossip was exchanged
elders acted as arbitrators in family or local disputes
sometimes, even marriages were arranged in these feminine addas

You get my drift? The adda was a social network, but it wasn’t electronic. It was a blogger’s meet, without a computer in sight. It was the blogosphere before the blogosphere existed. It was a place, yet it was everywhere.

Addas were fantastic. They are fantastic. They continue to be fantastic.

But. Addas didn’t scale. When we had multiple addas, there was some conversation that transcended addas, but it was limited. And for sure it didn’t transcend time or space. Everything was now and here. Sure it was “live”, and of course that was fantastic, but there were a few drawbacks. The conversations didn’t persist, so if someone wasn’t there tough luck. No replays, no recorded highlights. If the conversation was in a language you were less than fluent in, tough luck. Everything was now, no time to translate. If you couldn’t remember the names of the people you met, or if you weren’t introduced to everyone when you came in, then tough. Too bad. You see, addas weren’t like business meetings, with fixed start and end times and endless droning by people who liked the sound of their own voices. People walked in and out of addas. Freely. You weren’t always introduced, you didn’t always know everyone either. But usually there was someone who knew you, who greeted you as you came in, and that was good enough for the others.

So there were good things and there were drawbacks, but on balance they were fantastic.

For a long time now, I haven’t been able to come up with the right way to describe what I saw happening in the verandahs and streets, the college canteens, the India Coffee Houses.

[I’m not sure I’ve got it now. But then that’s what makes blogging so valuable. I can stick something out here and invite comment, watch you improve on it or cut it to shreds or even do both — at the same time — without getting hung up about it.]

What changed? How come I feel good about the descriptions now, when I didn’t even a few months ago. I’ll tell you what. Twitter. That’s what changed. Here’s another extract from the adda link I provided earlier:

Come evening, and parks and important street crossings of Kolkata attracted adda-loving young people. Idly watching traffic and people go by, casual conversations assumed new dimensions. The middle-aged and the elderly frequented neighborhood shops or dispensaries. The day’s experiences were related, with the shop owner or the homely doctor joining in. With time hanging heavy on their hands, unemployed young men chose two places for their adda. The roadside ground floor verandah (known as the rok) of a house, or the roadside tea stall. Occasional lewd remarks, aimed at passing girls, caused much resentment among the seniors of the locality.

Markets are conversations. By watching the interactions between the physical world and the electronic world, by observing what was happening at work and at home, connecting the family and the workplace to Facebook and Twitter and mobile devices, I began to see something that reminded me of something else. Which was this: When I had my heart attack in 2006, I started learning more about how the heart functioned, which included understanding how arteries and veins worked. Which meant I started seeing diagrams like the one below, reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.


Now let me add and emphasise some of what is said below this diagram in Wikipedia:

Blood flows from digestive system heart to arteries, which narrow into arterioles, and then narrow further still into capillaries. After the tissue has been perfused, capillaries widen to become venules and then widen more to become veins, which return blood to the heart.

The walls of capillaries are composed of only a single layer of cells, the endothelium. This layer is so thin that molecules such as oxygen, water and lipids can pass through them by diffusion and enter the tissues. Waste products such as carbon dioxide and urea can diffuse back into the blood to be carried away for removal from the body. Capillaries are so small the red blood cells need to partially fold into bullet-like shapes in order to pass through them in single file.

Capillary permeability can be increased by the release of certain cytokines, such as in an immune response.

When I see pictures like the one above, when I read descriptions like the one above, I start thinking. Is that what Twitter is? Is Twitter a set of capillaries, connecting arteries of conversation in the physical world to veins of conversation in the electronic world, connecting the home and the physical workplace to the electronic social network, the virtual world and the mobile device? Is there something special happening between Facebook and Twitter and the phone, set in the all-too-real contexts of home and work, cutting across ages and genders and places and subjects?

Is this something special happening because we can now do things we couldn’t do before? Is it because the conversations are persistent, because they can be archived and retrieved, subscribed to, searched, found? Is it because the conversations can be participated in more freely, because we know who’s in the conversations, because we no longer have to rely on memory? Is it because the barriers to entry and exit of the adda are lower, we no longer have to be fluent in every language, we can translate after the event?

Is it because the relationship between the physical and the virtual world isn’t about either-or, it’s about and? Physical and virtual.

Maybe we do have capillary conversations.

Twitter isn’t a fire-hose, it’s a collection of capillaries. That’s what pub-sub is about, capillary action. Where nutrients get diffused and distributed, where waste products get diffused and ejected. But Twitter is useless on its own, it needs the arteries and the veins. Which is where physical and electronic social networks come in. Twitter augments and is augmented by Facebook. We just haven’t got used to it.

And it’s not just about Twitter and Facebook either. It’s about Flickr. And YouTube. And Dopplr. And Netvibes. These are just different collections of veins. Without an e-mail in sight.

[An aside. When I looked for photographs of India Coffee House, and found Lecercle’s set, I was very taken with his descriptions. Here’s the text that accompanied one of the photographs I used:

All around, people were drinking coffee with an accompanying glass of cold water, reading newspapers and eating samosas or their 23 rupee Chicken Afghani. As elderly turbans waiters in faded white uniforms drift from table to table. Everybody knows about the Calcutta’s love for talk especially about exalted topics. It usually a careless chatter about anything from Dosteovsky to the vagaries of Indian cricket selectors. It usually involves some amount of talk about cricket, politics, football, Calcutta, food and always a footnote about the songs of Tagore. The Coffee House permeates this talk, a bright hum insulated by the coffee house’s high vaulted ceilings and the noise of the Calcutta Street.

Maybe you get an idea as to why I love blogging, and a bit about the roots of this blog.]

5 thoughts on “Musing about Capillary Conversations”

  1. new to this blogging world but I really connected with what you wrote – just wondered about the similarities/differences between adda and gossip but the capillary conversation is a great metaphor

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