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.


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.


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 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

Monday, February 10, 2014

When Childhood Wasn't Doctor-Approved

Once upon a time, playgrounds were death traps.

All right, maybe not quite that bad, but from the time the first jungle gym was installed about century ago, until 1975, children's safety wasn't exactly the first thing on parents', teachers', and certainly not playground manufacturers' minds.

Time was, you could lunge at a merry-go-round like catching a speeding train—and just as easily be flung several yards from it. A jungle gym was a gridwork of bars onto which you could project an imaginary kingdom of maneuvers—without a net to break your fall. And the slide—this thing was made of steel and was dizzyingly tall and stole your breath at the very top.

If in those days there was a greater risk of harm on these playground pieces, so was there a better chance of experiencing something called awe—of freedom in that taking risk.

But in 1975, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, reporting too many backsides splintered and bruised at the hands of a see-saw, targeted our nation's playgrounds as potentially dangerous. Overnight, safety was sent to the front of the line.

This spring, UPNE's new imprint, ForeEdge, launches with a book devoted entirely to the glory days of play. Once Upon A Playground, by Brenda Biondo, is a photographic celebration of those bygone and disappearing 20th-century structures, many of which Biondo discovered half-abandoned on disused lots and summer campgrounds, captured in vivid color for all time.

Biondo's photos evoke both a happy nostalgia and an undeniable wistfulness, especially as we take stock of the "approved," ultra-safe, plastic playgrounds of the modern era. Once Upon A Playground will inspire you on your own hunt for monkey bars to hang upside down on all over again.

Here's just a small sampling of the images that fill the book:

copyright Brenda Biondo
copyright Brenda Biondo

copyright Brenda Biondo

Although it releases in May, it's not too early to pre-order Once Upon A Playground.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Seeking 'Meaningful Freedom' in Vermont

Image source: Jim Hood a.k.a. GearedBull, via Wikimedia Commons

by Tom Haushalter

As well as it touts its (fiercely protected) natural, mountainous beauty, its cheeses and fall foliage, and its excellent skiing, Vermont nearly belies its own quaint Main Street charm with its independent, self-reliant spirit—hardly more vigorously expressed than in the aftermath of floods and destruction caused by 2010's Tropical Storm Irene. 

Vermont's individualism runs as deep as January accumulations in the Northeast Kingdom, as tall (in legend) as Ethan Allen, and as far back, let's say, as 1777, when a small congress of men drew up a constitution inside a tavern in the town of Windsor, adopted it, and formed the Republic of Vermont. The republic would last until 1791, when Vermont was admitted as America's 14th state. But among the laws in Vermont's founding document that remained—and the only of its kind in the fledgling agrarian nation—was the abolition of slavery.

In part because Vermont had outlawed slavery, comparatively, so early—shy of a century before America would—it came to be regarded as a bastion of unhampered humanity, a refuge from prejudices institutionalized everywhere else, and a place to be generally left alone if one so pleased.

But a new book just released from the Vermont Historical Society, titled The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810, by University of Vermont professor Harvey Amani Whitfield, shows that even its lone abolitionism wasn't quite as absolute in those early years as anybody would like to believe. The documents that Whitfield uncovers, including bills of sale and court documents, indicate that blacks were still being used as slaves. In an interview with Vermont Today, Whitfield says:
If you were black in Vermont in the 1780s, you could vote, take a white person to court and own property. But at the same time you could be kidnapped or your children held as slaves. Slavery just didn’t end—it was a longer process that took at least 30 years.
Whitfield also says that while he doesn't intend the book to amount to a "gotcha" moment in the history of free Vermont, it's no less necessary to make known the state's difficulties in enforcing the law, where in numerous towns discrimination persisted in one form or another. “It doesn’t mean the founders didn’t take an important step,” he said, “but there is a difference between ending slavery and establishing meaningful freedom.” 


In 1946, an African American named Will Thomas moved his family to Vermont. Fed up with a culture of endless racism, from his birth home in Kansas City to his youth in Chicago, all the way to California, there Thomas and his wife dared to leave the U.S. for Haiti and to live free of racial prejudice. But he decided to give his country one more chance, hoping all the things he'd read about Vermont held true.

Last fall, UPNE member Northeastern University Press brought back into print Will Thomas's phenomenal memoir, The Seeking, originally published in 1953. Thomas' story begins in that present day, with him and his family on the cusp of moving to Vermont. Throughout their doubt-ridden transition and acclimation to country life, Thomas intersperses crucial formative scenes of his youth, assembling an intimate portrait of one man's evolving racial identity in the early 20th century. 

In the post-war moment that The Seeking is written, before the rise of the civil rights movement, Will Thomas searches for America's redemption—for "meaningful freedom"—in Vermont. His family would be joining about 400 other African Americans who called Vermont home, scarcely one-tenth of one percent of the population then. Would the place make up in welcoming spirit what it lacked in actual diversity?

The townsfolk of Westford, where Thomas settles, aren't outwardly unkind, but they aren't really sure, either, what a young black family is doing there. The local reaction verges on passive aggression, manifested in slow drives past the Thomas' house, staring into their windows. If not racism in the clearest sense, their prejudice, as Thomas perceives it, is couched in questions like, "How come you left sunny California for chilly ole Vermont?"

Gradually, folks do make themselves known and helpful to Thomas and his family, effectively making them part of the community, but the pangs of being outsiders don't subside entirely. 

On a walk around local roads one day, noting the disused grist mill and an abandoned farm house "with fallen roof, sagging timbers, paneless windows, its nearby outbuildings having become anonymous piles of rotting wood," Thomas meditates on 
how it was—how it really was—in the early days and later; and in this or that desolate spot. I speculated on what grim drama might have been played out there, between long-dead men, white or red, or perchance a vagrant black, such as a slave skulking beneath the Northern star toward Canada, and freedom.

Freedom! That was what all men had sought in those harsh yesterdays: white men grimly determined to break their thrall to king and priest ... seeking this great, rich land, and the freedom they so fiercely desired.

But was it not freedom for themselves alone they really sought? Else why had they denied it to the red men from whom they tore the land, and to the African blacks whom later they had kidnapped to be their slaves?

But in Vermont, I reminded myself, men had not been like that then.

Yes, but what of now?

I did not know, not even as weeks became months. I wasn't sure, wasn't at all sure.
In Thomas' experience of Vermont, and in any telling of its past (and present), as is the case anywhere, the picture is far from spotless. And the injustices—often unspeakable and, unlike Thomas', unwritten about—remain inexcusable. But history told well does not ask to be excused. Its purpose is to enlarge our understanding of the "grim drama" in order to better shape the present scene and acts to follow. 

In Vermont, Will Thomas seeks a sense of belonging, and comes to find it—perhaps through mutual discomfort and dogged persistence—in the people who learn not only how to "profess racial tolerance [but] to practice such sentiments in day-to-day living."


Discovering Black Vermont: African American Farmers in Hinesburgh, 1790–1890, by Elise A. Guyette

Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, 1815–1860, by Harvey Amani Whitfield