Portable World

What worlds, lives do we carry in our razor thin portable mobile devices and what do we leave behind? Do we realize what we are leaving behind? Notes from a wired/wireless world, writes Koli Mitra.

There’s a TV commercial that shows a mountain-climber scaling a tall, steep crag when she stops to make a phone call and check in with her broker, while casually dangling in the sky by her rappelling gear.  It’s a delightfully pithy demonstration of a cellular network’s extraordinary range of coverage. Equally striking, though, is the underlying message: it’s good to “stay connected” from anywhere you wish.

But… connected to what?

Here’s a person, balanced literally on a precipice –of death, quite possibly – with breathtaking geological splendour all around her, in what should be a life-altering moment… and she’s “connecting” to something else?

Ok.  It’s just an ad and exaggeration is very much the point. But the little vignette unwittingly taps into a very real phenomenon.  This practice of relentlessly “staying connected” to the entirety of our lives all at once is forcing us to disconnect from whatever instant of our lives we actually happen to be living.

Even the exaggeration is less dramatic than one might imagine.  I saw a man, in real life, making a phone call from rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Wyoming. Granted, he had somewhat safer leverage than the woman in the ad (he was standing on top of the cliff, not hanging off its side); also, I don’t know if his preoccupation was anything as dispiriting as an investment portfolio; but whatever was taking him out of the moment couldn’t possibly have been more compelling than that moment.

Beneath us lay an expansive ravine of yellow volcanic rock, best described as sunshine in solid state. Across the gorge, the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River tumbled majestically off a tall bluff twice the height of Niagara Falls.  Osprey flew overhead. Thickets of green pine surrounded us and perfumed the air. On the horizon, the purple Washburn Mountains rose  magnificently against a clear, azure sky.

… And just yards from me, one of my fellow creatures was choosing to transport himself out of this grandeur.

This man was probably not impervious to nature’s beauty.  After all, he came to Yellowstone and hiked up to the overlook. Maybe he was simply eager to “share” this joyous experience with someone unable to come. But his behaviour is symptomatic of a deeply fragmented sense of place and is alarmingly common.

The question is, how does something innate, like one’s sense of place, get broken? We biological organisms are hardwired with sensory perception, which has evolved precisely as a function of negotiating immediate physical environments. For millennia, we’ve used it to solve problems with incredible specificity of place. It’s how we found food and mates and avoided poisons and predators.

Yet, increasingly, we use our senses, like the aural sense in the examples above, to reject our immediate physical environment. Courtesy of headphones and mobile devices, we no longer have to engage with any space we occupy. We can simply project ourselves into alternative spaces we choose, based on whatever we deem important or pleasurable at any given time. We don’t look out of airport terminal windows to watch planes take off and land while we wait for our flights. Instead, we take conference calls with the clients we’re flying toward or the colleagues we’re leaving behind. We don’t trade secret smiles and grimaces with strangers’ kids in the grocery store checkout line. Instead, we upload photos of our nieces and nephews to Facebook on our tablets. We don’t hear the hum of traffic during our commute or the chirping of birds in the park where we run. Instead, we listen to the playlist we have created in our iPods.

Soon, it simply becomes our habit to spurn the discomfort, hard work, risk of failure – or the sheer dullness – of navigating the unrehearsed, unfiltered “here and now”; we reflexively choose the act of disengagement, just because we can.  But it’s a practice that erases the distinction between presence and absence. Indeed, it renders irrex-ray fascist bannerlevant the whole notion of “presence,” since the “present” is no longer privileged to demand our attention, now that we have the option to retreat, virtually,  into an alternative space – possibly a synthetic space, forged from elements we’ve cherry-picked from a wide range of spaces, which are more familiar, comforting, exciting – whatever serves our whim.

The present, not being customizable, can’t live up to such seductive standards. And we, no longer obliged to confront or adapt to the present, lose the habit altogether. We forget how to be present, anywhere.

The flip side of this dissipating sense of place is a correspondingly diminished sense of movement.  In the physical world, relativity theory tells us, it’s meaningless to conceive of “motion” without a frame of reference to or from which an object is said to be “moving”.   Perhaps this is a useful metaphor for understanding the experience of movement…the feeling of traversing space…the awareness of being in a place that is distinct from another. If we never fully inhabit any one place, if we can be everywhere at once, then our perception of the distances between places becomes flattened, and our “movement” stops being meaningful.

All our ultra-light, razor-thin, integrated mobile devices running cloud-computing software were ostensibly designed to enhance mobility and unshackle us from the confines of “location.”  The idea is: if you never have to completely exit your familiar world, never have to risk missing something while you’re away, then you’re truly “free” to go anywhere, anytime.

But… staying continually in touch transforms the essence of “being away” into something qualitatively similar to “staying put.”

Mobility that predicates itself on connectivity is not “freedom”; it’s just a very long leash.

Even the common lexical merging of the apparently opposite words “wired” and “wireless” suggests a fundamental dichotomy in how we define our electronically extended space.  We say “wired world” and “wireless world” to evoke the same image of an interconnected, dynamic unit of space.

That’s not to say electronic extension of space is a fallacy. Certainly, communication technology has opened up vast horizons of experience that wouldn’t be available to most people a generation ago. Even a “long leash” is a valuable device when you absolutely must be both connected and mobile, like a tethered, space-walking astronaut.

Trouble is, we’ve made this our default position.  We never leave anything behind.  “Traveling light” no longer means cutting loose from the artifacts and “requirements” of your usual life and foraying into the unfamiliar, expecting to be enriched by the unexpected.  Now, it means packing as many of those “requirements” as possible into one slim, light, “easy-to-carry” device.  Even that exercise becomes self-defeating as we cram more and more “connectivity” into our “mobility.  Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple (the company famous for making streamlined, “mobility-enhancing” products) admitted to traveling with twenty-odd electronic devices, weighing more than fifty pounds.

We travel more than ever, but never wholeheartedly “go” anywhere.

Like invisible strings, electronic signals keep us tied to our point of origin, which, increasingly, is located in a virtual place, patched together from pieces of all the places where we anticipate needing or wanting to be. We go out into the world, carrying the pleasures and burdens of places we’re supposed to be leaving behind. Our offices, friends, music libraries, audiobook collections, the shopping cart in our favourite online shoe store – and our investment broker – all come along with us to the mountaintop, the coral reef, the racetracks and the wedding banquet. They create their own audio, video, or textual space inside our head. Our senses, those instruments for perceiving and relating to the physical environment, become tools for tuning out the sensory inputs of that environment. When we do experience something, we immediately alienate ourselves from it, like Brechtian actors, in order to record, edit, and package the experience for instant broadcasting back to our virtual home-world via Twitter or Facebook.

Long ago, Marshal McLuhan envisioned the demise of “Guttenberg Man” –humans with minds shaped by text and overreliance on abstract, analytical understandings of the world.  He predicted that electronic media would supersede text and reshape human cognition in ways analogous to earlier historical times, before the Printing Press launched a mass assault of text on all other media. Electronic multimedia, with its immediacy and nonlinearity, would make us engage with the world in a manner McLuhan described as “living mythically and in depth.”  By “mythically” he meant favouring the instinctive/subjective over the analytical/objective, and “in depth” meant being fully engaged rather than alienated.  As it turns out, “Guttenberg Man” has been supplanted by “iPhone Dude” who certainly lives mythically… but not so much in depth.

McLuhan coined the term “global village” (anticipating an electronically connected world), but later switched to “global theater,” when he was misinterpreted as suggesting that an interconnected world would be unified or harmonious.  But in another way, “global village” is a more apt description than he could have known.  To those with means, the globe is as fully accessible as one’s own village. But the way we’ve used our access and interconnectedness is more “village” than “globe.” We haven’t all expanded our understanding of the world.  Rather, the vast majority of us have only enlarged and strengthened our own parochialisms by never leaving the virtual villages of our own making, no matter where in the world we go.

Passionate rationalist. Bleeding-heart moderate. Geek. Afflicted with a "language fetish". Koli practiced law on Wall Street until her lifelong love affair with writing demanded its rightful place as her primary occupation.

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