Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Life by the Skin of Your Touch-Screen

by Tom Haushalter

The warning signs are everywhere: mobile technology—that very iPhone you may be using to read this—is destroying polite society.

If you haven't stopped to consider the reasons why, you can be sure some arbiter of virtue out there has already penned the serviceable blog post or stat-ridden article enumerating the deleterious effects of your smartphone on human decency:

  • It's a phenomenal time-waster (Candy Crush™, anyone?)
  • It's why the word "phubbing" exists
  • With hyper-ready camera, it places a filter (preferably Valencia) on our life's experiences
  • The longer you have one, the harder it is to "disconnect" for even a few minutes at a time
  • And if you do successfully disconnect, it has probably totally eroded your ability to sit quietly and be lost in your own thoughts—to be exquisitely bored

The self-righteous air of mobile-tech moralists grows more tiresome by the day. Because let's get something straight: they're not simply criticizing the fact that you own a smartphone or the fact that you tweet with it. They're stacking their arguments with worrying figures in order to make a value judgment on how you spend your time. How thoughtful!

But how well they ignore a certain inevitability in the new habits we've formed. How easily they forget that the hypnotizing power of these little handheld wundercomputers is entirely by design.

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A new book just out from Dartmouth College Press, called Finding Augusta: Habits of Mobility and Governance in the Digital Era, by Heidi Rae Cooley, is a fascinating exploration of how information retrieval in the mobile age has evolved way beyond seeming like novel convenience to actually, as the title suggests, governing our brains.

As springboard to her thesis, Cooley tells us about an amateur filmmaker, Scott Nixon, from Augusta, Georgia, who from the 1930s through the 1950s went about documenting some thirty-six different Augustas, resulting in a sixteen-minute-long home movie of his travels and encounters. "During the course of the film," Cooley writes, "we discover that 'Augusta' specifies a township, a plantation, a military academy, a fort, a street, and a flower, called the Hardy Phlox Augusta."

What arises from Nixon's too-varied collection of Augustas, however, is a problem, as Cooley sees it, of "indeterminacy":

The very multiplication of Augusta dismantles assumptions regarding the stability of any single Augusta as referent. We discover that finding Augusta is a problem ... [and] as we learn that Augusta may not be a place at all, we must contend with the prospect that it might very well be a state of mind: a way of seeing and ordering the world.

In other words, the filmmaker's determination to locate all Augustas ultimately renders "Augusta" (the ideal) unattainable, unable to be pointed to on a map. But does that mean Augusta is nowhere, or is Augusta, in our pursuit of it, everywhere?

Yes, our pursuit. Cooley guides us right into seeing how "this film alludes to computational processes that characterize our mobile present." And if you really are reading this blog on your phone, you're about to achieve another level of awareness.

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When Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, the touch-screen device that would launch a thousand touch-screen devices, that ignited a gold rush of app developers giving us everything from weather tickers and restaurant finders to audio players and arcade games, that would become the portal through which to satisfy any of our informational, organizational, entertainment needs in a pinch, swipe, and tap—this magical object, the iPhone, was a masterstroke of design.

And don't you think Jobs knew it.

"We've designed something wonderful for your hand," Jobs pronounced in 2007. "It fits beautifully in the palm of your hand."

As Cooley investigates how Apple arrived at this sleek, sophisticated packaging, she concludes that the goal, of course, regardless of the myriad shapes and sizes and contours of our hands, was "to make any hand whatsoever respond easily and effortlessly to the device." And beyond the iPhone's physique, here was this groundbreaking, stupefyingly easy functionality to it. You could take away all of Apple's marketing gloss and still feel like you were holding something from the future, which had finally arrived.

And so, possessing a device that brings everything to your fingertips, that aspires (in every iPhone iteration since) to mimic the hand that holds it—to surpass hand-holding-phone and become phone-as-hand—and require the least amount of muscular exertion possible (never been a better time to have thumbs), haven't we taken one more giant step toward singularity?

Which is to say, hurray, there is an explanation to the disappearing act we all do when we're on our phones, displaced, oblivious to our surroundings, full-on phubbing.

Cooley, employing a theory and term devised by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens, calls it "core consciousness":

which is the becoming of "my present," is a gentle and persistent awareness of being ... At moments, I experience "my present" poignantly, as it happens to me and through me, as a site of mediation—between some now and some number of thens and in the context of what might be. Involuntarily, this becoming is experienced materially, temporally, that is, vitally, as "shock" (Walter Benjamin) or déjà vu, or a flooding of recognition...or the delightful, perhaps even comforting, feel of a well-designed device in hand.

In this "intensified state of knowing," you see, the phone transcends its object status, and "hands and eyes operate in tandem."

Sort of like when your partner has to ask you a third time to put your phone away at the dinner table, yanking you finally out of the hive mind of your Twitter feed, and it takes you a second to realize where you are. You perceive that you're at the dinner table now. You are not where you were a moment ago.

While Cooley stops short of casting aspersions on these new transforming, transfixing habits, she acknowledges that "it is certainly possible to use these devices with deliberate forethought" and with some modicum of self-control to limit our own Augustan pursuit of everything (or nothing, depending on your point of view). Even still, "by design, [our phones] encourage a new kind of engagement [which] happens on the edge of things—on the edge of consciousness and amidst the many edges that structure our physical world."

Your phone and you. It's an exhilarating new relationship...at least until the screen cracks or Pandora crashes again or your data runs out or somebody tags you in that high school swim team photo where you're wearing a Speedo (and braces!) and you swear it's the last straw—time to go build a cabin in the woods and be alone with your thoughts. #itcouldhappen

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