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.

Disconnected Varieties of Augmented Experience

In a short blog post, “This is What the Future Looks Like”, former Microsoft executive Linda Stone writes:

“Over the last few weeks, I’ve been noticing that about 1/3 of people walking, crossing streets, or standing on the sidewalk, are ON their cell phones.  In most cases, they are not just talking; they are texting or emailing — attention fully focused on the little screen in front of them.  Tsunami warning?  They’d miss it.

With an iPod, at least as the person listens, they visually attend to where they’re going.  For those walking while texting or sending an email, attention to the world outside of the screen is absent.  The primary intimacy is with the device and it’s possibilities.”

I suspect that you would be able to offer similar anecdotal evidence. I know that this kind of waking somnambulation characterizes a good part of those making their way about the campus of the very large university I attend.

Stone offered these comments by way of introducing a link to a video that you may have seen making its way around the Internet lately, going viral I believe we call it. The video documents Jake P. Reilly’s 90 day experiment in disconnection. He called it The Amish Project and you can watch it unfold here:

Needless to say, Riley was very pleased with what he found on the other side of the connected life. Asked in an interview whether this experience changed his life, Reilly had this to say:

“It’s definitely different, but I catch myself doing exactly what I hated. Someone is talking to me and I’m half-listening and reading a text under the table. For me, it’s trying to be more aware of it. It kind of evolved from being about technology to more of just living in the moment. I think that’s what my biggest thing is: There’s not so much chasing for me now. I’m here now, and let’s just enjoy this. You can be comfortable with yourself and not have to go to the crutch of your phone. For me, that’s more what I will take away from this.”

Although not directly addressing Riley’s experiment, Jason Farman has written a thoughtful piece at The Atlantic that calls into question the link between online connectivity and disconnection from lived experience. In “The Myth of the Disconnected Life”, Farman takes as his foil William Powers’ book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, which I’ve mentioned here a time or two. In his work, Powers commends the practice of taking Digital Sabbaths. If you’ve been reading this blog since its early days, you may remember my own post on technology Sabbaths from 2010; a post, incidentally, which also cited Linda Stone. It’s a healthy practice and one I don’t implement enough in my own experience.

Farman has good things to say about Powers’ work and technology Sabbaths (in fact, his tone throughout is refreshingly irenic):

“For advocates of the Digital Sabbath, the cellphone is the perfect symbol of the always-on lifestyle that leads to disconnection and distraction. It epitomizes the information overload that accompanies being tethered to digital media. Advocates of Digital Sabbaths note that if you are nose-deep in your smartphone, you are not connecting with the people and places around you in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, the Digital Sabbath is a way to fix lifestyles that have prioritized disconnection and distraction and seeks to replace these skewed priorities with sustained attention on the tangible relationships with those around us.”

Nonetheless, he does find the framing of the issue problematic:

“However, using ‘disconnection’ as a reason to disconnect thoroughly simplifies the complex ways we use our devices while simultaneously fetishizing certain ways of gaining depth. Though the proponents of the Digital Sabbath put forth important ideas about taking breaks from the things that often consume our attention, the reasons they offer typically miss some very significant ways in which our mobile devices are actually fostering a deeper sense of connection to people and places.”

Farman then discusses a variety of mobile apps that in his estimation deepen the experience of place for the smartphone equipped individual rather than severing them from physical space. His examples include [murmur]Broadcastr, and an app from the Museum of London. The first two of these apps allow users to record and listen to oral histories of the place they find themselves in and the latter allows users to overlay images of the past over locations throughout London using their smartphones.

In Farman’s view, these kinds of apps provide a deeper experience of place and so trouble the narrative that simplistically opposes digital devices to connection and authentic experience:

“Promoting this kind of deeper context about a place and its community is something these mobile devices are quite good at offering. A person can live in a location for his or her whole life and never be able to know the full history or context of that place; collecting and distributing that knowledge – no matter how banal – is a way to extend our understanding of a place and a gain a deeper connection to its meanings.

Meaning is, after all, found in the practice of a place, in the everyday ways we interact with it and describe it. Currently, that lived practice takes place both in the physical and digital worlds, often through the interface of the smartphone screen.”

Finally, Farman’s concluding paragraph nicely sums up the whole:

“Advocates of the Digital Sabbath have the opportunity to put forth an important message about practices that can transform the pace of everyday life, practices that can offer new perspectives on things taken for granted as well as offering people insights on the social norms that are often disrupted by the intrusion of mobile devices. We absolutely need breaks and distance from our routines to gain a new points of view and hopefully understand why it might come as a shock to your partner when you answer a work call at the dinner table. Yet, by conflating mobile media with a lack of meaningful connection and a distracted mind, they do a disservice to the wide range of ways we use our devices, many of which develop deep and meaningful relationships to the spaces we move through and the people we connect with.”

My instinct usually aligns me with Stone and Powers in these sorts of discussions. Yet, Farman makes a very sensible point. I’m all for recognizing complexity and resisting dichotomies that blind us to important dimensions of experience. And it is true that debates about technology do tend to gloss over the use to which technologies are actually put by the people who actually use them.

All of this calls to mind the work of Michel de Certeau on two counts. First, de Certeau made much of the use to which consumers put products. In his time, the critical focus had fallen on the products and producers; consumers were tacitly assumed to be passive and docile recipients/victims of the powers of production.  De Certeau made it a point, especially in The Practice of Everyday Life, to throw light on the multifarious, and often impertinent, uses to which consumers put products. In many respects, this also reflects the competing approaches of internalists and social constructionists within the history of technology. For the former the logic of the device dominates analysis, for the latter, the uses to which devices are put by users. Farman, likewise, is calling us to be attentive to what some users at least are actually doing with their digital technologies.

De Certeau also had a good deal to say about the practice of place, how we experience places and spaces. Some time ago I wrote about one chapter in particular in The Practice of Everyday Life, “Walking the City”, that explicitly focused on the manner in which memories haunted places. If I may be allowed a little bit of self-plagiarization, let me sum up again the gist of de Certeau’s observations.

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.

For me, the first observation that follows is that by contrast with mental augmentation, digital augmentation, as represented by two of the apps Farman describes, is social. In a sense, it appears to lose the loneliness of memory that de Certeau recognized.

De Certeau elaborates on the loneliness of memory when he approvingly cites the following observation: “‘Memories tie us to that place …. It is personal, not interesting to anyone else …’”  It is like sharing a dream with another person: its vividness and pain or joy can never be recaptured and represented so as to affect another in the same way you were affected.  It is not interesting to anyone else, and so it is with our memories.  Others will listen, they will look were you point, but they cannot see what you see.

I wonder, though, if this is not also the case with the stories collected by apps such as [murmur] and Broadcastr. Social media often seeks to make the private of public consequence, but very often it simply isn’t.  Farman believes that our understanding of a place and a deeper connection to its meanings is achieved by collecting and distributing knowledge of that place, “no matter how banal.” Perhaps it is that last phrase that gives me pause. What counts as banal is certainly subjective, but that is just the point. The seemingly banal may be deeply meaningful to the one who experienced it, but it strikes me as rather generous to believe that the banal that takes on meaning within the context of one’s own experience could be rendered meaningful to others for whom it is banal and also without a place within the narrative of lived experience out of which meaning arises.

The London Museum app seems to me to be of a different sort because it links us back, from what I can gather, to a more distant past or a past that is, in fact, of public consequence. In this case, the banality is overcome by distance in time. What was a banal reality of early twentieth century life, for example, is now foreign and somewhat exotic — it is no longer banal to us.

Wrapped up in this discussion, it seems to me, is the question of how we come to meaningfully experience place — how a space becomes a place, we might say. Mere space becomes a place as its particularities etch themselves into consciousness. As we walk the space again and again and learn to feel our way around it, for example, or as we haunt it with the ghosts of our own experience.

I would not go so far as to say that digital devices necessarily lead to a disconnected or inauthentic experience of place. I would argue, however, that there is a tendency in that direction. The introduction of a digital device does necessarily introduce a phenomenological rupture in our experience of a place. What we do with that device, of course, matters a great deal as Farman rightly insists. But most of what we do does divide our attentiveness and mindfulness, even when it serves to provide information.

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. Unfortunately, the possibility of unfolding this art is undermined by the manner in which our digital devices ordinarily dissolve and distribute the mindfulness that is its precondition.

“I Was Born To Stand Outside Myself”

Last summer I posted a few thoughts on Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War which I had then begun reading. As it turned out, I set the book aside for a few months for no particular reason, but I’ve recently returned to it and finished it. I stand by my initial characterization: the novel is a meditation on beauty, and a lovely one at that.

Near the end, the main character, Alessandro, meets up with a talented, intelligent, articulate man named Arturo who is nonetheless thoroughly unsuccessful and unaccomplished. In conversation with Alessandro, Arturo sums up his life thus: “I was born to stand outside myself.”

This struck me as a remarkably evocative line. Now I confess that I’m going to take this in a direction that Helprin neither intended nor imagined. That said, the line immediately suggested to me the manner in which we are made to virtually stand beside ourselves in our (social) media environment.

There are perhaps two senses in which this is true. I’m thinking of the way that our social media profiles stand beside us in a rather apprehensible manner. We can look at them, manipulate them, experience them; they are us but not us. In this sense, I’m still inclined to think of our social media profiles as virtual memory theaters, at least in part.

The other sense is the manner in which the presence of our second self impinges upon our lived experience. We not only stand beside our past self as it is represented online, we also stand beside our potential future self as it will be represented online. This other potential self haunts our present from the future. Several months ago I posted a synopsis of Michel de Certeau’s observations about the way the past layers over certain places and haunts them. Places capture memories and those places cannot be divorced from those memories in lived experience. Perhaps if he were alive today, de Certeau would suggest that the future as well as the past now haunts our present. We live with our virtual memory theaters and we live with future memories as well. We are born to stand beside ourselves, actual and potential. And, perhaps most significantly, the potential self we live with is imagined within the constraints of the platform through which it will represented.

On this latter point, I would also point you to Nathan Jurgenson’s fine essay reprinted in The Atlantic: “The Facebook Eye.”

It does occur to me that this standing beside ourselves did not itself emerge with the advent of social media. One could argue that it is a function of all representation. Certainly it is a feature of writing itself. Walter Ong made much of the way in which literacy alienates. Among the many separations effected by writing Ong includes the separation of the known from the knower, the past from the present, and being from time.

So we might conclude that social media only augments a long standing trajectory. But my sense, as it often is with efforts to situate present phenomena within a historical trajectory, is that this threatens to miss the significance of present developments. Changes of degree may amount to changes in kind. As I’ve heard it put somewhere or other, a hurricane is not merely an unusually strong breeze.

Social media, and the technological ecosystem on which it depends, radically augments the alienation of writing if only by its mere ubiquity. But perhaps more importantly, it does so by making our second self that stands beside us also a public self that presents itself to a myriad of others. It’s the difference between an old-school diary and your Facebook profile. It is no small difference and we are all in the process of sorting out the personal and social consequences.

De Certeau concluded that “haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Walter Ong was also sanguine about the alienations wrought by writing:

“To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.”

Now the question is whether the standing beside ourselves effected by social media will carry similarly salubrious consequences. Discuss amongst yourselves. Here’s the prompt to get you going: Has social media continued to accelerate the evolution of consciousness or self-consciousness? Is there a difference?

The Ministers of Knowledge and Their Theories

The late French theorist, Michel de Certeau, offered this passing note of caution about the knowledge class in The Practice of Everyday Life. Read and heed:

“The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their ideologies and their positions. They transmute the misfortune of their theories into theories of misfortune. When they transform their bewilderment into ‘catastrophes,’ when they seek to enclose the people in the ‘panic’ of their discourses, are they once more necessarily right?”

‘Haunted Places Are the Only Ones People Can Live In’

Places have a way of absorbing and bearing memories that they then relinquish, bidden or unbidden. In three artful paragraphs Michel de Certeau enchants us with a series of poignant reflections on place and memory built upon a string of evocative metaphors. The whole discussion appears near the conclusion of a chapter titled “Walking the City” in The Practice of Everyday Life.

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 is principally developing this notion of a veiled remembered reality that lies beneath the visible experience of space.

And not only spaces, for as he puts it, “objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps,” suggesting then this metaphor:  “A memory is only a Prince Charming who stays just long enough to awaken the Sleeping Beauties of our wordless stories.”  But it is principally with places that de Certeau is concerned, places made up of “moving layers.”  We point 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.

The loneliness of memory is also captured in a comment incorporated by de Certeau:  “‘Memories tie us to that place …. It is personal, not interesting to anyone else …'”  It is like sharing a dream with another person: its vividness and pain or joy can never be recaptured and represented so as to affect another in the same way you were affected.  It is not interesting to anyone else, and so it is with our memories.  Others will listen, they will look were you point, but they cannot see what you see.

And perhaps it is this invisibility of memory stored away in places that inevitably suggests to de Certeau the haunting metaphor:  “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not.”  But, he goes on to say, “Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”

At this juncture de Certeau notes that this unseen, absent reality laid over our perception of present places “inverts the schema of the Panopticon.  This is a curious aside given that de Certeau is in conversation with Foucault, for whom the Panopticon becomes a metaphor for disciplinary society in Western cultures.  Rather than being seen by an unseen presence, we see an unseen absence.  Is this also then a form of resistance, a way to disperse the power of disciplinary society?  Do we invoke our memories inhabiting our spaces in order to inoculate ourselves against the pressures of conformity?  Our memories, especially perhaps childhood memories, are so particular that they reinforce the uniqueness of our experience.

Finally, de Certeau points to the embodied status of these memories:  “Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read … symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body. ‘I feel good here':  the well-being under-expressed in the language it appears in like a fleeting glimmer is a spatial practice.”  We not only see our memories, we feel them.  Of course, the proper vocalization of this feeling is not always, “I feel good here.”