Modern digital technologies allow us to connect, to be connected, pretty much constantly. Immediate access to others, information, opportunity, potential.
This particular mode of being always connected can undoubtedly lead to a relationship with the facilitating technologies (I am thinking principally of mobile internet-capable devices, including laptop computers) that is beyond mere preference for, or reliance upon, a tool. Existing in such a relationship is an essentially different mode of being than that of being without the technology. How we move, how we interact, how we recall information, how we consider new options. All of these are affected. The potential of our being is changed.
In short, being always connected affects not only what we do or how we do it but also fundamentally how we think, how we are, who we are. Social theorist Bruno Latour (1994) discusses this phenomena in terms of the man becoming the gunman upon possession of a gun. The potential of the gunman is completely different than that of either alone – the joining together of the two creates a whole new set of possibilities. Entering into a relationship of use with the gun, the man’s existence is “modified”.
Equally as striking is to ask what of the man if separated from the gun? Is the gun still considered? Is the World still considered through the gun, the man now simply an inactive gunman? Is it perhaps no longer possible to imagine a World without the gun?
Replace the gun for a mobile device and the dynamic sounds all too familiar to some. Being connected through a mobile device modifies one’s existence not only in a practical sense. Those who go on a self-enforced ‘outage’ attest to how incredibly different it is being without – but there might also be an acknowledgement that the relationship still exists in some form, even though presently idle, and with it a sense of inevitability that they will slip back into full-connectedness at some point.
Think of how nowadays going on holiday is considered not just a chance to relax but also to disconnect for a while. Despite the good intention, people doing so may well report some withdrawal effects and a certain knowledge that upon returning home they will once more be reconnected. Being disconnected for a while brings sharply into focus the intensity of the relationship that we have with connecting technologies.
“It in my grip, I in its“
A friend talked to me the other day about how they had stopped using facebook a few months previously. They mentioned how different in all sorts of ways things were without facebook now, not least a perceived reduction in anxiety, a new-found calmness. But they also went on to describe how they felt they might be losing touch with some people who they had no other direct means of contact with and so were considering going back to facebook just to make sure this didn’t happen. They explained they were scared of what might happen if they did this though – that they would again get anxious about the innumerable social possibilities and happenings at their fingertips, that once more they would become obsessed. The negative potential of the relationship actually scares my friend. That doesn’t sound like a mere tool to me.
Near Stockton he rose to get off. But at the stop, when he started to descend, the conductor hailed him. ‘Your briefcase, sir.’
‘Thank you.’ He had left it on the cable car. Reaching up he accepted it, then bowed as the cable car clanged into motion. Very valuable briefcase contents, he thought. Priceless Colt .44 collector’s item carried within. Now kept within easy reach constantly, in case vengeful hooligans of S.D. should try to repay me as individual. One never knows. And yet – Mr Tagomi felt that this new procedure, despite all that had occurred, was neurotic. I should not yield to it, he told himself once again as he walked along carrying the briefcase. Compulsion-obsession-phobia. But he could not free himself.
It in my grip, I in its, he thought.
The above quote, from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), really sums up the effect that having access to such powerful technology can have upon a person’s being–their state of mind. “Compulsion-obsession-phobia” seems to describe pretty well what my friend has experienced and I believe that many other people go through a similar range of emotions in respect of their connectedness.
However I do not think that the answer is to attempt to completely remove ourselves from these relationships, to abstain (quality article & short discussion on internet abstinence and such over at http://www.themachinestarts.com/read/2011-01-could-you-quit-the-internet). Unlike guns, being connected has a lot of good things to be said about it and, used well, its potential is largely positive. Still, I believe that there are some things can be done to make the most of it without being in its ‘grip’.
Rather than be compelled, obsessed or phobic of connectedness I think that a better way might be to acknowledge the nuanced relationships we have with the corresponding technologies and to simply remain aware enough that we find ourselves in a position of choice upon how we go about using them, knowing what is productive for us, what is not, what we like and what we don’t.
It might seem somewhat condescending to suggest that people ought to be more considered about something they are quite used to engaging in on a daily basis but as someone who has grown up through the transition from old-school telephonic connectedness (I got a pager when I was about 13 and a dial-up internet connection about a year later) to full-blown always-on mobile connectedness I am acutely aware that we do not really possess any well-developed cultural tools for specifically coping with being always-connected. See Beeban Kidron’s excellent In Real Life http://inreallifefilm.com/ for a wincing yet hopeful account of the effects of connectedness on the youth of today–the so called ‘digital natives’.
A sense of anything like personal best-practice is often at best ad-hoc and highly swayed by our perceived needs and desires–which are themselves frequently at the whim of software built to encourage maximum compulsion. Notifications, likes, pokes, ring tones, friend requests, instant messaging, event invitations, discussions, photos and up-to-the-minute news – all have the potential to be obsessed over and instantly and persistently demand the attention of our minds.
Compare this to the advent of the motor-car, around which an entire culture of regulation and best-practice has been developed, enforced and continually updated through the history of our relationship with it.
I personally believe that it is time we took charge of our relationship with connectedness. I do not think that the way forward is institutional regulation and enforcement but instead through self-regulation following a better understanding of our own personal relationships with it. This may not even meaning connecting less, just connecting more consciously.
A start to this can be made by simply being more attentive to the manner in which we interact with the hardware devices that allow us to be always-connected.
Essentially a start to being a more mindful deviceman.
A mindful deviceman
Mindfulness meditation training presents a series of techniques for being more aware of sensory phenomena. It is thought that training oneself to be able to regulate attention to bodily sensations can be the foundation upon which self-regulation of thought and emotion may be developed.
So if we can learn to start noticing the physical compulsion to reach for the device, to watch our attention being grabbed by the ringtone or to just be more aware of any feeling that we get from endlessly swiping and tapping then perhaps this is a solid place to begin understanding a bit better exactly what kind of relationship we have with it, allowing us the opportunity to change it if we wish.
Furthermore, what if the learning of mindfulness meditation techniques was done through the device itself? Would it more easily help to shift a person’s perception of what being connected entails, so having more conscious awareness of it and no longer being gripped by it?
These questions are major motivations for my research into the design of interactive technologies that are supportive of meditation practice. They are also part of the reason that I am looking at using gesture as a mode of interaction for learning mindfulness – gesture (swiping, tapping, clicking, scrolling etc) being so much a part of our physical relationship with connectedness.
In the course of my research I hope to find ways of designing around specific psychological and neurological processes that are central to a number of meditation techniques (namely mindfulness meditation), while making the most of the potential of modern digital technologies to do so. This may well be largely what I get up to over my PhD as I can already see it taking me fairly deep down the rabbit-hole, so-to-speak, but I also remain driven to better understand what this deviceman is and to figure out how he can be positively self-regulated.
Dick, P. K. (2012). The man in the high castle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation. Common knowledge, 3(2), 29-64.
This work was produced as research under the EPSRC-funded MAT programme.