sociology, tactility

What can gardens teach us about digitality?

The Washington Post has an intriguing piece about a book dealing with gardens (of all things) and digitality. The author, Robert Harrison, argues that gardens immerse us in place and time, and that digital devices do not. The article jumps all over the place, talking about mobile communication, cultural anthropology, and evolution, but it makes several important points.

To start, attending to digital devices is said to preclude being present:

“You know you have crossed the river into Cyberland when the guy coming your way has his head buried in the hand-held screen. He will knock into you unless you get out of his way, and don’t expect an apology. It’s as if you aren’t there. Maybe you’re not.”

I’m very interested in language like this, because it’s a metaphor in the process of becoming a literalism. Today, saying that you’re not there because you’re looking at a device is metaphorical, but I think that the meaning of ‘being there’ is going to change to mean where you are engaged, no matter where its geographical location is in relation to you. “I’ll be right there!” he said as he plugged his brain into the internet. Moments later he was standing in the garden…

The article quotes a study that claims that the average adult spends 8.5 hours a day visually engaged with a screen. 24-hour days, split up by 8.5 hours of screen and 8 hours of sleep—the Screen Age really does deserve its own delineation. It’s a significant and unique period in human history.

And just like sleep, perhaps disturbingly so, people looking at screens can resemble dead people (or, more accurately, un-dead people):

…We have become digital zombies.

But I think the resemblance is entirely superficial. Sure, if you only go by appearances, an army of screen-starers is a frightening sight to imagine. But scratch the surface and you realize that screen-staring is a far cry from zombism. The social spaces we are constructing while we stare, the vast data stores we are integrating—these activities remind me of life. Teeming life. Our bodies may be sedentary, our eyes fixed on a single glowing rectangle, but what is going on is indisputably amazing. On the microscopic level there are billions of electrical fluctuations per moment, both in our brains and our machines, and they are actively correlating and adapting to each other. Patterns of thought are encoded in a vast network of micro-actions and reactions that span the planet. And what is it like for you when you stare at a computer or phone screen? You juggle complex, abstract symbolic information at speeds never before achieved by human brains, and you’re also inputting—emitting—hundreds of symbols with the precise motor skills of your fingers. You are recognizing pictures and signs, searching for things, finding them, figuring stuff out, adjusting your self image, and nurturing your dreams. There is no loss of dignity or life in this. But I admit that we all look like zombies while we do it, and I suppose that is pretty weird.

The article goes on to quote author Katherine Hayles, who says she thinks humans are in a state of symbiosis with their computers:

“If every computer were to crash tomorrow, it would be catastrophic,” she says. “Millions or billions of people would die. That’s the condition of being a symbiont.”

Let that sink in. At any moment a catastrophic event could fry our entire digital infrastructure in one fell swoop. Our civilization teeters on a house of cards as high as Mount Everest! To me this is the only reason the Screen Age should be frightening, but it’s very frightening indeed.

Turning now to sensation, Hayles mentions that touch and smell are suppressed by bipedalism:

“You could say when humans started to walk upright, we lost touch with the natural world. We lost an olfactory sense of the world, but obviously bipedalism paid big dividends.”

Note that bipedalism is associated with a loss of tactility, but it has also been correlated with enabling more complex manual dexterity. Maybe there is a general principle here that ambient tactile awareness is inversely correlated to prehension.

After a brief ensuing discussion of dualism and the advent of location-based services, we’re back to the gardens:

The difficulty, Harrison argues, is that we are losing something profoundly human, the capacity to connect deeply to our environments… “For the gardens to become fully visible in space, they require a temporal horizon that the age makes less and less room for.”

I like the point about a gardens’ time horizon. But it’s used to complain about the discomfort of our rushed lifestyle, which I would argue is separable from communication technology. The heads-buried-in-screens thing doesn’t really affect whether we have time for gardens.

An interesting footnote offered by Harrison is that the Czech playwright Karel Capek, who invented the word ‘robot,’ was a gardener.

Finally, this is the photo that accompanies the article:
…captioned, “Fingers on the political pulse.” The article is about looking and being present, but the picture is about hands, heatbeat, and hapticity.

(via Althouse)