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.