To See, or To Be Seen

When we think about the consequences of a new technology, we are prone to ask about what can be done with it. We think, in other words, of the technology as a tool which is put to this use or that. We then ask whether that use is good or bad, or possibly indifferent.

So take, for example, a relatively new product like Twitter’s Vine. Vine is an app that is to video what Twitter is to text. It invites you to record and post videos, but these videos can be no more the six seconds in length. If you’re unfamiliar with Vine, you can watch a seemingly random selection of new videos at Vinepeek.

vine-logo

When you first hear of Vine, and you think about evaluating it (because you happen to be in a critical frame of mind), what sorts of questions do you ask? I suspect the first question that will typically come to mind is this: What will people post with this new tool? Will the videos be touching, beautiful, surprising, revealing? Will they be trashy, abusive, pornographic, violent? Or, will they be inane, predictable, mind-numbing?

Of course, videos posted to Vine will likely be all of these things in some necessarily depressing proportion. But this is only the first and most obvious question one could ask.

Here is another possible question: How does the use of Vine shape the way one perceives experience?

There are other questions, of course, but it is this question of perception I find to be really fascinating. The use of technology leads to consequential actions out there, in the world. But the use of technology also carries important consequences in here, within me. The question of perception is especially important for two reasons. First, and most obviously, our perception is the ground of pretty much everything else we do. How we “see” things leads to certain kinds of thoughts and feelings and actions. Secondly, that by which we perceive tends to fade from view; we don’t, to take the most obvious example, see the eyes through which we see everything else.

This means that one of the most important consequences of a new technology might also be the consequence we are least likely to become aware of, and this only heightens its influence.

So how does the use of Vine shape perception? Like most documentary technology, the use of Vine will likely encourage users to “see” potential Vines in their experience just as a camera encourages users to “see” potential photographs. But what do we make of this new frame by which we are prompted perceive? That depends, I think, on the degree to which users become self-aware of the medium, the possibilities it creates, and the constraints it imposes.

Reality is always out there; certain aspects are apparent to us, certain aspects are concealed. New technologies may reconfigure what is revealed and what is concealed to us. Slow-motion film, for instance, does not create a new reality; it alters perception and thereby reveals previously concealed dimensions of reality. (I think this is the sort of thing Walter Benjamin had in mind when he discussed the “optical unconscious.”)

Technologies of perception — and really all technologies impact perception — reveal and conceal. No one technology can simultaneously reveal the whole of reality. If it reveals some new dimension of reality, it is because it simultaneously conceals some other dimension. A user that is self-conscious of how a new technology can be used to perceive experience creatively might use a new medium such as Vine to imaginatively make others aware of some previously unnoticed aspect of reality.

To those who care about such things, I think that Martin Heidegger’s influence is hiding between the lines of this post. The German philosopher had a great deal to say about technology and how it affects our perception, how it becomes a part of us. He used the phrase “standing reserve” to describe how modern technology encouraged us to reduce material reality to a fund of resources just there on stand-by, “ready-to-hand,” that is ready to be put to use by us for our purposes. The intrinsic properties of what is rendered merely standing reserve are obscured or lost altogether. We see, we perceive such things only as they are useful to us. We don’t see such things as they are; and “such things” are sometimes not “things,” but persons.

With a technology like Vine, the question may be whether it is used with a view  to the world as “standing-reserve,” there merely to be exploited for our own uses (which often amount to making ourselves seen), or whether it is used as a means of revealing the world, of allowing some previously muted aspect of reality to be seen.

Of course, this question applies to much more than Vine. It is a question to ask of all technology.

Borg Complex Case Files 2

UPDATE: See the Borg Complex primer here.

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Alright, let’s review. A Borg Complex is exhibited by writers and pundits whenever you can sum up their message with the phrase: “Resistance is futile.”

The six previously identified symptoms of a Borg Complex are as follows:

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims for technology

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate

In an effort to further refine our diagnostic instruments, I am now adding two more related symptoms to the list. The first of these arises from a couple of cases submitted by Nick Carr and is summarized as follows:

7. Expresses contemptuous disregard for the achievements of the past

Consider this claim by Tim O’Reilly highlighted by Carr:

“I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. … the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.”

Well, there you have it. This same statement serves to illustrate the second symptom I’m introducing:

8. Refers to historical parallels only to dismiss present concerns.

This symptom identifies historical precedents as a way of saying, “Look, people worried about stuff like this before and they survived, so there’s nothing to be concerned about now.” It sees all concerns through the lens of Chicken Little. The sky never falls. I would suggest that the Boy Who Cried Wolf is the better parable. The wolf sometimes shows up.

To this list of now eight symptoms, we might also add two Causes.

1. Self-interest, usually commercial (ranging from more tempered to crass)

2. Fatalistic commitment to technological determinism (in pessimistic and optimistic varieties)

Now let’s consider some more cases related to education, a field that is particularly susceptible to Borg Complex claims. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman gushed over MOOCs:

“Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.”

These are high, indeed utopian hopes, and in their support Friedman offered two heartwarming anecdotes of MOOC success. In doing so, he committed the error of tech-uptopians (modeled on what Pascal took to be the error of Stoicism): Believing the wonderful use to which a technology can be put, will be the use to which it is always put.

Friedman wrapped up his post with the words of M.I.T. president, L. Rafael Reif, “There is a new world unfolding and everyone will have to adapt.”

And there it is — Borg Complex.

In long piece in The Awl (via Nathan Jurgenson), Maria Bustillos discusses an online exchange on the subject of MOOCs between Aaron Bady and Clay Shirky. Take the time to read the whole thing if you’re curious/worried about MOOCs. But here is Shirky on the difference between he and Bady: “Aaron and I agree about most of the diagnosis; we disagree about the prognosis. He thinks these trends are reversible, and I don’t; Udacity could go away next year and the damage is already done.”

Once again — Borg Complex.

At this juncture it’s worth asking, as Jurgenson did in sending me this last case, “Is he wrong?”

Is it not the case that folks who exhibit a Borg Complex often turn out to be right? Isn’t it inevitable that their vision will play out regardless of what we say or do?

My initial response is … maybe. As I’ve said before, a Borg Complex diagnosis is neutral as to the eventual veracity of the claims. It is more about an attitude toward technology in the present that renders the claims, if they are realized, instances of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The appearance of inevitability is a trick played by our tendency to make a neat story out of the past. Historians know this better than most. What looks like inevitability to us is only a function of zooming so far out that all contingencies fade from view. But in the fine-grain texture of lived experience, we know that there are countless contingencies that impinge upon the unfolding of history. It is also a function of forgetfulness. If only we had a catalog of all that we were told was inevitable that didn’t finally transpire. We only remember successes and then we tell their story as if they had to succeed all along, and this lends claims of inevitability an undeserved plausibility.

One other consideration: It is always worth asking, Who stands to profit from tales of technological inevitability?

Consider the conclusion of a keynote address delivered at the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich by Max Levchin:

“So to conclude: I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.”

The “analog processes” Levchin is talking about are basically the ordinary aspects of our human lives that have yet to be successfully turned into digital data points. Here’s Carr on the vision Levchin lays out:

“This is the nightmare world of Big Data, where the moment-by-moment behavior of human beings — analog resources — is tracked by sensors and engineered by central authorities to create optimal statistical outcomes. We might dismiss it as a warped science fiction fantasy if it weren’t also the utopian dream of the Max Levchins of the world. They have lots of money and they smell even more: ‘I believe that in the next decades we will see huge number of inherently analog processes captured digitally. Opportunities to build businesses that process this data and improve lives will abound.’ It’s the ultimate win-win: you get filthy rich by purifying the tribe.”

Commenting on the same address and on Carr’s critique, Alan Jacobs captures the Borg-ish nature of Levchin’s rhetoric:

“And Levchin makes his case for these exciting new developments in a very common way: ‘This is going to add a huge amount of new kinds of risks. But as a species, we simply must take these risks, to continue advancing, to use all available resources to their maximum.’ Levchin doesn’t really spell out what the risks are — though Nick Carr does — because he doesn’t want us to think about them. He just wants us to think about the absolutely unquestionable ‘must’ of using ‘all available resources to their maximum.’ That ‘advance’ in that direction might amount to ‘retreat’ in actual human flourishing does not cross his mind, because it cannot. Efficiency in the exploitation of ‘resources’ is his only canon.”

We “must” do this. It is inevitable but that this will happen. Resistance is futile.

Except that very often it isn’t. There are choices to be made. A figure no less identified with technological determinism than Marshall McLuhan reminded us: “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” The handwaving rhetoric that I’ve called a Borg Complex is resolutely opposed to just such contemplation, and very often for the worst of motives. By naming it my hope is that it can be more readily identified, weighed, and rejected.

Elsewhere McLuhan said, “the only alternative is to understand everything that is going on, and then neutralize it as much as possible, turn off as many buttons as you can, and frustrate them as much as you can … Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I’m resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button.”

Understanding is a form of resistance. So remember, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance where discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.

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This is a third in series of Borg Complex posts, you can read previous installments here.

I’ve set up a tumblr to catalog instances of Borg Complex rhetoric here. Submissions welcome.

Borg

Varieties of Online Experience

In 2011, Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase digital dualism in a post on the website Cyborgology. Here is an excerpt from the opening of that essay:

Digital dualists believe that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real.” This bias motivates many of the critiques of sites like Facebook and the rest of the social web and I fundamentally think this digital dualism is a fallacy. Instead, I want to argue that the digital and physical are increasingly meshed, and want to call this opposite perspective that implodes atoms and bits rather than holding them conceptually separate augmented reality.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Since then, the critique of digital dualism has been advanced by Jurgenson and the writers associated with Cyborgology with enough consistency and regularity that I think it fair to say it characterizes what could be called the Cyborgology school of digital criticism.

In the comments section of my previous post on the integrity of online practices, while discussing the value of activities that some might understand as “offline” (but characteristically wanting to guard against digital dualism), Jurgenson suggested a distinction between being explicitly and implicitly connected as a way of getting at how the online impinges upon the offline.

I thought this useful, but as I considered the dynamic, it seemed to me that it might be better to talk about two vectors or spectrums rather than one. My initial effort to describe these two vectors yielded a spectrum of material connectivity and one of psychic connectivity.

With material connectivity I had in mind access to the more straightforward ways we might be online: on a laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc. This spectrum then would run from a situation wherein we are without device and without signal to one in which we are actively engaging a device that is connected to the Internet.

With psychic connectivity I had in mind the degree to which we are conscious of the online experience. On one end of this spectrum, we are not at all conscious of the online and on the other it is at the forefront of our thinking.

I realize this was less elegant than the implicit/explicit dichotomy, but thinking in terms of two intersecting vertices offered a little more nuance. We may, for example, at any given moment, be materially connected (i.e., with easy and present access to the Internet), but psychically disconnected (i.e., not be thinking of it at all). Conversely, we may be materially disconnected (e.g., in the woods), but psychically connected (i.e., thinking of how we’ll tweet later about the experience). The other possibilities include being both materially and psychically connected, and, most importantly for my purposes, materially and psychically disconnected.

I’ve thought a little more about this schema and what it tries to capture, and I’ve realized that there’s a little more that it needs to include. This is still a work in progress, but here, as I presently see them, are the varieties of online experience that any such schema would want to encompass (including those explained above):

Material connectivity: As described above, this refers to our tangible connection through a device to the Internet. The spectrum would range from non-access to access to engagement. This kind of connectivity is, in fact, the material base of all the other forms.

Existential connectivity: This replaces “psychic” connectivity above (I think it sounds better). It refers to our conscious awareness of online realities and how that awareness shapes our thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. The proposed spectrum here ranges from states of being in which the Internet plays no role whatsoever to those which are preoccupied with or focused on some aspect of it. It is here that we would register the possibility that, device in hand or not, our interpretation of experience is inflected by Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, etc.). Think here of Jurgenson’s “Facebook Eye.”

Residual connectivity: I’m thinking here of the way in which our habits may be formed by online experience so that the consequences of being connected stay with us even when we are not connected materially or even existentially. Consider, for example, the manner in which our attention may be conditioned by Internet use yielding something like the disordered states of attention that Nicholas Carr, Katherine Hayles, and Linda Stone have, each in their own way, addressed. Or, how the immediacy, convenience, and efficiency that drives online activity may render patience increasingly difficult to cultivate.

Iconic connectivity: Terminology is getting sketchy, I know, but stay with me. This category accounts for another sense in which we might be online without being materially connected to the Internet that arises from the presence of our data online. Our online profiles have a life of their own and constitute an online presence whether or not we are ourselves materially connected or existentially connected. This manner of being online may be best illustrated by the enduring online presence of those of have passed away (or, the enduring presence of their data if you prefer). Though dead, they remain, in some sense, online. Like religious icons, they are representations of a person that both are and are not the person. The spectrum here would range from having no self-created online presence, to forgotten and unmanaged profiles, to active profiles not at the moment in use, to presently acting through an online profile. We might say that, at the latter end, the icon and the person are most closely identified. I think my Facebook as Rear Window analogy works best here.

Ambient connectivity: With this category, I’m attempting to register the manner in which we may be online through activities that did not originate with us. So, for example, I may not be materially, existentially, or iconically connected, but I may still be mentioned online by a friend who is. Or, not being connected in any way, I might ask someone who is for directions to some place across town.

More generally, we might also consider the manner in which the world we live in is transformed by online reality, with real consequences for our lives, even if we remain disconnected. This may be as simple as the local Borders that I frequented closing down due to competition from online retailers. Or, it may be a more complicated dynamic, such as the way that a person with whom I seek to have a romantic relationship has had their understanding of relationships conditioned by habits formed through online realities. These more general effects of online realities on my life may not be best treated alongside the varieties of online experience above. In other words, to call these latter realities a form of being online may be pressing the language beyond its usefulness.

So what to make of these categories together? Being now five vertices, they can no longer be neatly tied together into four quadrants of possibilities. Looking at them together it strikes me that there is a phenomenological line separating material and existential connectivity on the one hand and iconic and ambient connectivity on the other with residual connectivity somewhere in-between.

I can theoretically monitor where I am on the spectrums of the former two. (Although the act of self-monitoring, in a Heisenberg sort of way, would create an interesting paradox on the existential spectrum. Am I existentially online if I am aware of myself not being online?) But I can’t do so in the same way with iconic and ambient connectivity. I have no way of knowing where my profiles have been and I may be forever blissfully unaware that someone, somewhere has said something about me online. I’m tempted to call iconic and ambient connectivity the unconscious online.

Residual connectivity may frequently be at work on me without my awareness, but I think it possible to become aware of it. Perhaps we might call residual connectivity the ordinarily unconscious online.

As it stands, this is already an overly long blog post, so I’m going to resist the temptation to keep parsing. I’ll let these categories sit for now and welcome observations and criticisms. I don’t exactly offer this as a companion to the recent efforts by a variety of writers at Cyborgology to advance the digital dualism critique (here and here, for example), but if it is of any value in that effort, I’d be glad for it.

The Integrity of Offline Practices

In Technology Matters, historian David Nye distinguished between the knowledge we might gain of a tool by “reading” it as if it were a text and the knowledge that would arise from using the tool. It is the distinction between conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge or knowledge that we can articulate (e.g., what is the capital of Argentina)  and knowledge that we simply carry in our bodies (e.g., how to type).

To illustrate this distinction, Nye used the American axe as an example:

“The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context.”

This was well put and instructive. When I recently came across a short essay called “Axe worship” by Bella Bathurst that described the joys of chopping wood, I recalled the passage above from Nye and went on to read the essay with interest piqued.

Bathurst did not disappoint. The essay was just the right length for what it aimed to do and was written in just the right tone. It also included two paragraphs in particular that nicely captured the joy of wood chopping. Here’s the first:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

And then there was this:

“The point and the pleasure of chopping logs is that it is just me and a stone-age tool. Standing there in the shed in a deep layer of sawdust and chippings, I can hear the birds and the river and the changing note of the blade as it strikes different ages and sizes of timber. I can sense the rhythm of my own work and the difference between old wood and new.”

This resonated with me. Unlike Bathurst, I don’t live in a place that necessitates the chopping of wood for fires to keep warm by. But I have exerted myself in other physical tasks which yielded not entirely dissimilar experiences. But even as Bathurst words were resonating, I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.’”

(IRL – “in real life” – Fetish, you may remember, is Jurgenson’s name for what he takes to be the unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities. Sherry Turkle’s reflective stroll on the shores of Cape Cod was Jurgenson’s paradigmatic case.)

But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. She did not frame her experience as an escape or respite from the tyranny of the digital. There was no angst about the hyper-connected life. It was simply a meditation on the joys of swinging an axe. So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology?

I wouldn’t think so. This sort of experience appears to be altogether un-preoccupied with the discontents of digital technology. It is not that we can claim that some thought of the digital world never entered Bathurst’s mind — how could we know anyway — but that even if it did (to note that this would make a good online essay for example) it appears to have done so unproblematically.

Bathurst’s account of her experience strikes me, in fact, as another example of a practice which offers, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “a chance to find yourself.” It is a practice in which we might become absorbed, and one that offers the particular pleasures of working against the resistance presented by the material world and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully toward some end.

These practices and the pleasures they yield have an integrity of their own that are not necessarily coupled with digital technology (although they may sometimes be justly contrasted to digital technology). What they offer are goods in themselves irrespective of their relationship (or non-relationship) to digital technologies. We should, in other words, engage in these sorts of practices for their own sake, not merely as antidotes or countermeasures to digital mediation.

Perhaps we do such practices and experiences a disservice, those of us who do highlight their significance in light of digital realities, when we discuss them only as such. Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.

Hilaire Belloc noted the following long before the advent of digital technology:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

Written today this may have “IRL Fetish” written all over it. Written, as it was, in the early 20th century, it is a reminder that advocating such practices and experiences need not necessarily be an act of escapism or fetishizing. It might simply be an honest recognition of what has long been uncontroversially true about human experience. Or, as Freud reportedly put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Conjuring Ghosts: Digital Technology and the Past

Late last month, I ran across a set of images created by Jo Teeuwisse superimposing scenes from World War II over images of those same places today. The effect has been universally described as haunting, and rightly so. The images also present a rather interesting form of augmented reality. If you’ve hung around this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that memory and place are two recurring themes. Naturally, these images caught my attention. Unfortunately, time constraints being what they are, I never did get around to writing about them.

Fortunately, Miranda Ward has. At Cyborgology, she has written a characteristically intelligent and well-crafted meditation on the images, “On Technology, Memory and Place.” She concludes on this note:

“So technology can do much to harness the power of place – to make memory increasingly social, to represent “the shared experience of bodies co-located in space” – and I think it should: I think this is part of the joy of it. But perhaps we also need to think about preserving the utterly private relationship with place – and what this preservation will look like in a “geo-optimized” world.”

Click through and read the whole.

While reading Ward’s piece, and since first seeing these images, a few related items came to mind.

Back in February, Jason Farman wrote a piece in The Atlantic that reflected on how mobile technology altered our experience of places. Farman discussed one app by the Museum of London that allowed users to see images from London’s past superimposed over the present scene in much the same manner as Teeuwisse’s photographs. Farman was optimistic about what mobile devices can do for our experience of places:

“While none of these practices may seem unique to our digital age – stories have been attached to place throughout history – the ability to connect innumerable narratives to a single site is something that other media haven’t been able to effectively accomplish.”

At the time, I wrote a post in response which leaned a good deal on Michel de Certeau’s reflections on walking the city (it’s a passage I’ve come back to again and again). De Certeau’s writing on this theme is especially pertinent to the photographs that inspired Ward’s essay. In fact, these photographs and the Museum of London app discussed by Farman might be seen as tools to materialize the invisible realities evocatively identified by de Certeau.

Here’s how I then summarized de Certeau on haunted places:

Places have a way of absorbing and bearing memories that they then relinquish, bidden or unbidden. The context of walking and moving about spaces leads de Certeau to describe memory as “a sort of anti-museum:  it is not localizable.”  Where museums gather pieces and artifacts in one location, our memories have dispersed themselves across the landscape, they colonize.  Here a memory by that tree, there a  memory in that house.  De Certeau develops a notion of a veiled remembered reality that lies beneath the visible experience of space.

Places are made up of “moving layers.”  We point, de Certeau says, here and there and say things like, “Here, there used to be a bakery” or “That’s where old lady Dupuis used to live.”  We point to a present place only to evoke an absent reality:  “the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences.”  Only part of what we point to is there physically; but we’re pointing as well to the invisible, to what can’t be seen by anyone else, which begins to hint at a certain loneliness that attends to memory.

Reality is already augmented.  It is freighted with our memories, it comes alive with distant echoes and fleeting images.

Digitally augmented reality functions analogously to what we might call the mentally augmented reality  that de Certeau invokes. Digital augmentation also reminds us that places are haunted by memories of what happened there, sometimes to very few, but often to countless many. The digital tools Farman describes bring to light the hauntedness of places. They unveil the ghosts that linger by this place and that.

This remains, as evidenced in Ward’s post, a very useful metaphor by which to think about technologies that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past. As to the question that Ward comes back to on more than one occasion — So what? — I’m not entirely sure. In response to Farman’s essay, I offered up this alternative de Certeau-ian perspective:

Perhaps I am guilty, as Farman puts it, of “fetishizing certain ways of gaining depth.” But I am taken by  de Certeau’s conception of walking as a kind of enunciation that artfully actualizes a multitude of possibilities in much the same way that the act of speaking actualizes the countless possibilities latent in language. Like speaking, then, walking, that is inhabiting a space is a language with its own rhetoric. Like rhetoric proper, the art of being in a place depends upon an acute attentiveness to opportunities offered by the space and a deft, improvised actualization of those possibilities. It is this art of being in a place that constitutes a meaningful and memorable augmentation of reality.

What strikes me now about this conclusion is that it distinguished between an embodied interaction with a place and a strictly mental/visual interaction. These need not be mutually exclusive, of course. But perhaps it is worth noting that by there nature, apps and photographs that bring the past into the present forefront the visual, and the visual is only one way of knowing a place.

While I have been writing this, I have had next to this tab another with the text of W.H. Auden’s “Musée Des Beaux Arts.” This has been coincidental, but now it strikes me as serendipitous. The poem  goes like this:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything
turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

With this poem, Auden reflected (via Bruegel’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”) on how suffering often unfolded unnoticed, unremarked upon, and, we might now add, unremembered. The photographs with which we began have the effect of inverting this dynamic. Now we, the living, take note. We can see what then may have passed while someone was dully walking along. It is now we who are the unnoticed ones. The past is there present before our eyes and we can see it, but it is silent with respect to us. It now walks dully on as we make our way, looking, perhaps, to anchor our ephemeral present in its weightiness. But alas they are just ghosts, and the anchor does not hold.