There is a lot of buzz of recently about the nature of presence in public spaces, including inter-personal communication (or lack thereof) and individual behaviour. Countless pieces have surfaced on the microblog universe and become ‘viral’ across different ‘virtual’ venues and online participants. WIth over 5 million views there is the interview with comedian CK Lewis talking about how we use our smart phones to avoid loneliness because we’re too scared to experience being alone (“Why I won’t let my daughter use a cell phone”). The recently popular youtube video “I forgot my phone” offers a poetic warning for how devices disconnect us from the present, from ‘authentic interaction’ is going strong with over 32 million views. In the TED-universe Sherry Turkle’s talk “Connected but alone?” predates the more recent pop culture contributions with a more well-rounded discussion of how the presence of ubiquitous technology is re-shaping the relationships we have with ourselves, with each other and with technology itself. In addition to numerous articles on the bloggo-sphere organized around the theme of ‘how the iphone is ruining the world’, the presence of this critical mass of cultural resistance points to some important collective fears we have with regard to presence, communication and relationships.
When I say ‘we’ I really think digital immigrants fit this condition most accurately for a number of important and unique reasons. As occupants of a truly transitional world between print/old and new/digital media we inernalize the angst and moral panic of a technological culture that is rapidly surpassing our ability to adapt; we are naturally mired in nostalgia over the very different nature of our childhoods that were built on face-to-face interaction, yet we cannot get on the exclusive “text is best” horse our parents and grandparents seem to be riding. Meanwhile, what is probably more accurate of the present day is a gradual shift towards withdrawal from the public sphere, retreat into our silos of family and close friends, particularly in urban centres that have overtime become concrete jungles filled with strangers and institutions. De-personalization of the public sphere in this sense way predates the emergence of the mobile phone – it is more appropriate to see it as a symptom of an already shifting social and inter-personal relations and an evolving nature of presence.
Coming at it from the old paradigm of defining communication technologies by their sensory affordances – yes, it seems as if we bury ourselves in the screen, privileging a visual, virtual field; however, if we let go of this type of conceptualization of communication technology, we can see mobile smart devices as micro-worlds that are receptory as much as they are participatory for activities we control (see pic above) – so we are in fact burying ourselves primarily into a world we control, full of connections, sounds, images, gestures and haptic interactions. I’m not saying that smart phones aren’t changing the world; but I have to reflect on my own pre-conceived notions – both theoretical and personal – before I aim to point out exactly how, or why. As McLuhan said, rear-view mirror vision is 20-20, and we often discover that the changes we ascribe to technologies were in fact at play long before technology arrived to the stage of social action and cultural practice – particular technologies such as in our case the “smart phone” simply captured and promoted those changes especially well.
Some fun blog posts on this: