The Smartphone in the Garden

[Update: If you are seeing this older post in your RSS feed, it is because I updated the post to correct a glaring factual error and the post inadvertently re-published.]

Following an extended stay in Europe, Henry James returned to America in 1904.  Shortly after landing in New York, he made his way to New Hampshire. There he was struck by how the landscape impressed itself upon him. It was full of “the sweetness of belated recognition, that of the sense of some bedimmed summer of the distant prime flushing back into life and asking to give again as much as possible of what it had given before.” James wondered what it was that triggered this reaction, “shamelessly ‘subjective’” as it may have been, but he interrupted his own introspection: “When you wander about in Arcadia, you ask as few questions as possible.” Recounting this experience in The American Scene, however, he could not help but return to the questions: “Why was the whole connotation so delicately Arcadian, like that of the Arcadia of an old tapestry, an old legend, an old love-story in fifteen volumes …?”

James’ reflections were noted by Leo Marx in the closing chapter of his classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. First published in 1964, The Machine in the Garden is a rich, absorbing study of the tension between the pastoral ideal and the intrusion of machine technology throughout American history. In the first part of the work, Marx explains how, soon after the European discovery of the New World, the pastoral ideal was seized upon to describe America. Thomas Jefferson in particular translated what had been a literary construct into “a guide to social policy.” America was to be a society wherein the opposition between nature and civilization was resolved in favor of a delicately balanced, harmonious relationship; it was not a wilderness, but a garden.

America’s quasi-mythic self-understanding, then, included a vision of idyllic beauty and fecundity. But this vision would be imperiled by the appearance of the industrial machine, and the very moment of its first appearance would be a recurring trope in American literature. It would seem, in fact, that “Where were you when you first heard a train whistle?” was something akin to “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” The former question was never articulated in the same manner, but the event was recorded over and over again.

In Marx’s view, the recurring vignette describing the startled recognition of the machine’s intrusion into the pastoral ideal was an American adaptation of the traditional “pastoral design.” The pastoral design was a literary convention with roots in classical antiquity. Within the pastoral design, the pastoral ideal of the harmony between man and nature, positioned between civilization on the one side and wilderness on the other, is troubled by the intrusion of some “counterforce” which signals the larger reality within which the pastoral ideal is played out. The gesture is made visible in the landscape paintings of the 17th century that introduced some momento mori into the idealized scenery. It is, for example, spelled out by Poussin when his shepherds stumble upon a grave with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Within the pastoral design, impinging disruptive forces always trouble the pastoral ideal.

The train whistle became, for a certain generation of American writers, a memento mori signaling death’s presence within the pastoral ideal of America. This ideal, however, was not eradicated by the industrial revolution. It was still alive in the imagination of Henry Adams, even if it appears more self-consciously quaint unto itself. Well into the 20th century, the artistic conventions of the genre are still visible, even in the technocratic vision of Charles Sheeler.

Sheeler’s “American Landscape” (1930) adopted the formal conventions of the landscape painting, down to the solitary human form provided to indicate the scale of all else, but, of course, the striking feature of Sheeler’s landscape is the total absence of land. The entire environment has been “mechanized.” Marx does not make this point, but I’m tempted to read the ladder in the lower right corner, the only archaic element in view, as a memento mori. A return to pre-industrial technology is the death that threatens. But, Marx notes, “this bleak vista conveys a strangely soft, tender feeling.” As is characteristic of Sheeler’s technological paintings, movement has been stilled. Sheeler, according to Marx, has “imposed order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos.”

It is useful to contrast Sheeler’s painting with an older attempt to harmoniously represent a new order which encompasses the machine into the ideal.

In “The Lackawanna Valley” (1855), George Innes depicts a more traditional landscape, but he has incorporated the machine into the scene, both by the presence of the train winding its way toward the foreground and the smoke rising from the mills or factories further in the background. Setting Innes and Sheeler side by side, creates a suggestive illustration of the evolution of the machine’s place within the pastoral ideal of American society. What was for Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau and others of their generation a potentially destructive intrusion into the pastoral ideal, is first assimilated into the ideal and then transfigures the ideal into its own image.

Sheeler’s painting is characteristic of a trend, but it should not be taken to suggest the death of the pastoral ideal for American society. Like all deeply rooted cultural ideals, it has a way of reinventing itself and reemerging. Marx’s history, in fact, can be usefully understood as context for our present debates about the Internet and society. Seen in this light, Sherry Turkle’s Cape Cod narrative can be understood as an elaboration of a genre that goes back at least as far as Hawthorne’s “train whistle” notes. Here is Turkle writing in the NY Times:

“I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It is no longer the industrial machine that has entered the garden, it is now the smartphone.


(More to come.)

Presence Emerges: Bodies in Conversation

Sunday before last I opened up my Twitter feed to find Sherry Turkle getting pummeled for her opinion piece in the Sunday NY Times, “The Flight From Conversation.” Rarely has my feed spoken with such strident uniformity; Turkle had clearly struck a nerve. With other more pressing commitments demanding my attention, however, I bookmarked the essay and several of the responses that came in over the next few days. A little over a week later, the storm having mostly blown over, I want to throw in my belated two cents.

Critics noted that Turkle presented a false dichotomy. Conversations can still happen even in a world that includes social media and text messaging. This is true in principle, of course. And, in principle, I suspect Turkle would agree. But I’m not sure this is really the best way of approaching these sorts of concerns.

Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of presence. Granting that, in the abstract, the use of electronic forms of communication does not necessarily preclude the possibility of conversation, and granting, of course, that not every conversation is nor ought to be of the deep and absorbing variety, it seems worthwhile to explore how actual instances of face-to-face conversation might be affected by the kinds of technology Turkle has in view.

And to narrow our focus even further, I’ll focus on the cellular phone. It is after all the cellular phone that materializes electronic communication across the whole field of our experience, and it is the materiality of the cellular phone that presents itself in the context of face-to-face conversation.

It seemed to me that Turkle’s concerns were strongest when they dealt with the manner in which technology impinges on face-to-face communication. And on this point many of her critics agreed with her concerns even while they disagreed with the manner in which they were packaged. This is also the aspect of Turkle’s work that seems to resonate most widely. After all, much to her critics bemusement, the threaded comments seemed mostly to validate Turkle’s point-of-view.

It is easy to see why. Most of us have been annoyed by someone who was unable to give another human being their undivided attention for more than seconds at a time. And perhaps more significantly, most of us have felt the pull to do same. We have struggled to keep our attention focused on the person talking to us as we know we ought to, and we know we ought to because some shred of our humanity remains intact and we know very well that the person in front of us is more significant than the text that just made our phone vibrate in our pocket. We have been on both ends of the kind of distractedness that the mere presence of a smartphone can occasion, and we are alive enough to be troubled by it. We begin to feel the force of Simone Weil’s judgment: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

And so Turkle’s piece, and others like it, resonate despite the theoretical shortcomings that make certain scholars cringe. After all, what difference does it make that some study showed that a statistically significant portion of the population reports feeling less lonely when using social media if I can’t get the person standing two feet away from me to treat me with the barest level of decency.

The question remains, however, “Are smartphones at fault?” This is always the question. Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? Are smartphones ruining face-to-face conversation? Put that way, I might say, “No, not exactly.” That’s usually not the best way of stating the question. Rather than begin with a loaded question, perhaps it’s better simply to seek clarity and understanding. What is happening when cellular phones become part of an environment that also consists of two people engaged in conversation?

Out of the many possible approaches to this question, it is the path offered by Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “intentional arc” that I want to take. Merleau-Ponty writes:

“The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, [and] our human setting ….”

Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher whose work has built on Merleau-Ponty’s, adds this explanatory note:

“It is crucial that the agent does not merely receive input passively and then process it. Rather, the agent is already set to respond to the solicitations of things. The agent sees things from some perspective and sees them as affording certain actions. What the affordances are depends on past experience with that sort of thing in that sort of situation.”

Here’s what all of this amounts to. The “intentional arc” describes the manner in which our experience and perception is shaped by what we intend. Intending here means something more than what we mean when we say “I intended to get up early” or “I intend to go to the store later.” Intention in this sense refers to a mostly non-conscious work of perceiving the world and how that perceiving is shaped by what we are doing or aim to do. Our perception, in other words, is always already interpreting reality rather than simply registering it as a pure fact.

This work of perception-as-interpretation builds up over time as an assortment of “I cans” carried or remembered by our bodies. This assortment becomes part of the background, or pre-understanding, that we bring to bear on new situations. And this is how our intentional arc “projects round about us our past, our future.”

What is particularly interesting for our purposes is how the insertion of a tool into our experience reconfigures the “intentional arc” that is supporting our experience. The phenomenon is neatly captured by the expression, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” This line suggests that how we perceive our environment is shaped by the mere presence of a tool in hand. (Notice, by the way, how this “effect” is registered even before the tool is used.)

Merleau-Ponty might analyze the situation as follows: The feel of a hammer in hand, especially given prior use of a hammer, transforms how the environment presents itself to us. Aspects of the environment that would not have presented themselves as things-to-be-struck now do. Our interpretive perception interprets differently. Our seeing-as is altered. New possibilities suggest themselves. The affordances presented to us by our environment are re-ordered.

Try this at home, go pick up a hammer, or for that matter any object you can hold in hand that is weighted on one end. See what you feel. Hold it and look around you and pay really close attention to the way your perceive these objects. Actually, on second thought, don’t try this at home.

Another example, perhaps more readily apprehended (and less fraught with potential danger) is offered by the camera. With camera in hand our environment presents itself differently to us. I would go so far as to suggest that we see differently when we see with camera in hand. The concrete objectivity of the world has not changed, but the manner in which our perception interprets the world has; and this change was effected by the presence of a tool in hand (even prior to its use).

In this sense, the tool does have a certain causal force, it causes the environment to present itself differently to the user. It may not cause action, but it invites it. It causes the environment to hail the user in a new way.

Returning to the situation with which we began, we can ask again how the presence of a smartphone reconfigures face-to-face conversation. How does it alter the intentional arc that suspends the act of conversation? I first began thinking through this question by focusing on the phone itself, but this approach foreclosed itself; it wasn’t proving to be very helpful to me. But then I thought about the act of conversation itself and the question of presence. What would it mean to be fully present to one another and what difference would this make for the act of conversing?

I realized then that the really interesting dynamic involved what two people offered to one another in the act of conversing face-to-face. Presence was not a uni-directional phenomenon involving the intentionality of each partner individually. Presence was not something one person achieved. Rather presence emerged from the manner in which the act of conversation coupled the intentionality of each individual. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s lingo (and give it my own somewhat sappy twist), two intentional arcs come together to form a circle of presence.

Merleau-Ponty spoke of our body’s natural tendency to seek an “optimal grip” on our environment. In face-to-face conversation, our bodies seek an optimal grip as well. While our conscious attention is focused on words and their meaning, our fuller perceptive capabilities are engaged in reading the whole environment. In conversation, then, each person becomes a part of a field of communication that includes, but is not limited to verbal expression. To put it another way, our intentional arc includes acts of interpretative perception of the other’s body as well as their words.

When we perceive eyes and hands, facial gestures and posture we perceive these not merely as eyes or hands but as eyes that signify, hands that mean, etc. We are attuned to much more than the words a person offers to us. Conversation involves the whole body in an act of holistic communication. And we perceive much of that communication at a non-conscious level; perceiving these dynamics becomes a part of our pre-understanding applied to the act of conversation.

But this dynamic that enriches and shapes face-to-face communication depends on each person offering themselves up to be read in certain ways. Our attention intends the other’s body as a nexus of communication, but when the other’s body is not engaged in the act of conversation, dissonance results and presence is broken.

Back to the smartphone. When the smartphone enters into the dynamic it disrupts the body’s communicative patterns. Gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression — all of it is altered. It no longer means in the way our body is used to perceiving meaning. Perception finds it impossible to achieve an optimal grip on the embodied interaction. And because our bodies give and receive this sort of communication tacitly and often in remarkably subtle ways, we may not be conscious of this dissonance in the act of conversation. We may only register a certain feeling of being out of sync, a certain feeling that something is off. Presence fails to emerge and conversation, of the sort that Turkle champions, indeed, of the sort we all acknowledge as one of the great consolations offered to us in this world — that kind of conversation becomes more difficult to achieve. Given the bodily dimensions of face-to-face conversation, I’m not sure it could be otherwise.

It is not that “social media” in some abstract generic form or the practice of texting in general that threatens conversation. It is the concrete materiality of the device entering into the intentional arcs of our perceiving and meaning-ful bodies engaged in face-to-face communication that is troublesome.

Social Media: Good for Groups, Bad for Individuals?

Remember those IBM “You Make the Call” spots during NFL games that used to show you a controversial play and then ask you to make the call before revealing what was in fact the right call?

Well, here’s a variation:

A recent Pew survey has been widely taken to suggest that Internet use doesn’t kill healthy social life after all.

A recent Stanford study suggests to some that social media, Facebook in particular, is making us sad.

You make the call!

Admittedly, this is not exactly an either/or situation, it may even be both/and, I just felt like alluding to the vintage commercial.  (Follow that last link and you’ll also see some vintage Tandy and IBM computers.)

Here’s a little more from each.  Regarding the Pew survey:

Pew found that 80 percent of Internet users participate in groups, as compared with 56 percent of non-Internet users.

Twitter users were the most social. 85 percent of them were involved in group activity offline, followed by 82 percent of social networking users. The results from the survey identify the use of social media and online activities as helpful in the process of disseminating information and engaging group members.

“The virtual world is no longer a separate world from our daily life and lots of Americans are involved in more kinds of groups,” said Rainie.

From the Slate story about the Stanford study:

Facebook is “like being in a play. You make a character,” one teenager tells MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her new book on technology, Alone Together. Turkle writes about the exhaustion felt by teenagers as they constantly tweak their Facebook profiles for maximum cool. She calls this “presentation anxiety,” and suggests that the site’s element of constant performance makes people feel alienated from themselves. (The book’s broader theory is that technology, despite its promises of social connectivity, actually makes us lonelier by preventing true intimacy.)

With that excerpt I’m killing two birds with one stone by pointing you to Sherry Turkle’s most recent work which has drawn considerable attention over the last month or so. See Johah Lehrer’s review here and, in a lighter vein, watch Turkle on The Colbert Report here.

Also of interest in the Slate article is the differentiation between male and female use of Facebook:

Facebook oneupsmanship may have particular implications for women. As Meghan O’Rourke has noted here in Slate, women’s happiness has been at an all-time low in recent years. O’Rourke and two University of Pennsylvania economists who have studied the male-female happiness gap argue that women’s collective discontent may be due to too much choice and second-guessing–unforeseen fallout, they speculate, of the way our roles have evolved over the last half-century. As the economists put it, “The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood in believing that one’s life is not measuring up.”

If you’re already inclined to compare your own decisions to those of other women and to find yours wanting, believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy. And women may be particularly susceptible to the Facebook illusion. For one thing, the site is inhabited by more women than men, and women users tend to be more active on the site, as Forbes has reported. According to a recent study out of the University of Texas at Austin, while men are more likely to use the site to share items related to the news or current events, women tend to use it to engage in personal communication (posting photos, sharing content “related to friends and family”). This may make it especially hard for women to avoid comparisons that make them miserable. (Last fall, for example, the Washington Post ran a piece about the difficulties of infertile women in shielding themselves from the Facebook crowings of pregnant friends.)

Regarding the Pew survey, I’m wondering if it says as much as its proponents take it to say.  I’m not sure it necessarily says much about the quality of the social interaction involved, but more significantly, dividing the population between Internet users and non-Internet users seems less than helpful and may give us nothing deeper than mere correlation.

Regarding the Slate story, find the strong push back in the comment section from the woman who benefited from Facebook during a time of deep depression.  Generalizations will never be without exceptions, of course, and it may be more helpful to think of social media exacerbating rather than causing certain dispositions or emotional states.