Simultaneous Environments in Vodafone

 

Netlab Director Kazys Varnelis explores alienation and connection as they develop in place, non-place, and networked place in "Simultaneous Environments—Social Connection and New Media," an online magazine article in issue 21 of Vodafone Receiver, "Space is the Place!"
 
Vodafone Receiver has been under maintenance for a few months so we are posting the article below.
 
 
(photograph by Leigha Dennis, Netlab)
 
 
Simultaneous Environments. Social Connection and New Media
Kazys Varnelis

As an architectural and urban historian trying to make sense of the transformations in contemporary society, I find that looking back at moments much like our own—but also different—can be a way of gaining perspective.
 
A little more than a century ago, the relationship of people and place underwent a massive revolution as the telegraph and the transoceanic cables that carried its signals made it possible for information from around the world to be transmitted in near-instant time. Almost immediately, news organizations such as the Associated Press developed to take advantage of these new technologies. Newspaper editors could collect the previous day’s news from across the globe and make it available in the morning paper. The telegraph, and later the telephone allowed diplomatic, military, and corporate decision-making to be centralized. The modern metropolis emerged out of this new centralization as command-and-control districts, such as the American downtown, arose while, under remote control, factories moved out from the urban core to less expensive but more spacious quarters on the city’s periphery.
 
These were profound changes, and we live in their wake, but we should not underrate the new psychic conditions that accompanied them. Chief among these was alienation. As more and more individuals left their rural homes to seek their fortunes in the city, human ties were fundamentally transformed. One of the first sociologists (a field that arose, of necessity, to study mass behavior), Georg Simmel wrote of these changes in his 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Faced with “the intensification of nervous stimulation” Simmel observed, the metropolitan individual shut down, becoming blasé or indifferent to the world around him. Simmel’s diagnosis paralleled that of contemporary psychologists, such as George Beard, who in 1869 identified the stresses of urban life as causing kinesthetic neuresthenia. Individuals afflicted with kinesthetic neuresthenia, Beard suggested, would shut down, becoming apathetic, depressed, and withdrawn.
 
If exhilarating at times, change itself could also be alienating. Of the old Paris, disappearing under Baron Haussmann’s interventions, Charles Baudelaire would write, “the form of a city changes faster, alas, than a mortal’s heart.” Reading of a distant event, one could marvel at the greater degree of connection that technology made possible, but the newfound simultaneity of this early moment of globalization was also deeply unnerving. Electrical impulses had bent space and time irrevocably. All the simultaneous goings-on in the world underscored how one’s own perspective was just one of many. The Enlightenment prospect of coming to a thorough understanding of the world began to seem impossibly distant. New forms of art, such as Cubism, responded to this condition, depicting simultaneity not as something that could be easily grasped, but as confusing, even perverse.
 
To navigate businesses through these changes, and to maximize the efficiency that technology made possible, managers engineered their employee’s behavior. The punch card, the assembly line, and the automation of the workplace were meant to help businesses, but no matter how successful, these estranged individuals even further. The system was not loved but hated, the corporation seen as a dehumanizing machine.
 
For the bourgeoisie, at least, the home was the bulwark against the pressures of a changing society. The overstuffed interior demonstrated the family’s ability to command a global market and to demonstrate their taste while serving as an inward-focused world of intimacy, emotion, and meaning, a place in which connections could be nurtured.
 
But even here, there were pressures. Mass media soon entered the home through the radio and television, devices that replaced the piano and the fireplace as gathering points for the family. Individuals were subsumed into the mass, addressed by a media that perceived its audience as homogeneous, consumers rather than producers.
 
During the twentieth century such conditions were exacerbated. New, faster forms of travel—on the motorway and by plane—were ever more disconnected from their environment. Automation and scripted procedures reduced human contact. Toward the century’s end, Marc Augé noted that under this condition of “supermodernity,” place was rapidly giving way to “non-place.” Places, that is, spaces made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning, were disappearing. Instead our lives came to be composed of a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Caught in airport lounges and freeways, but also ATMs, the space in front of the CRT, and supermarkets, we found ourselves increasingly alone, inhabiting non-places. Our alienation was ever more total, a consequence of the empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.
 
Or so it seemed. A scant decade later, a second revolution in communications and society is well underway. Everything has changed in the blink of an eye, a century of modernity undone as fast as it came as new technologies support new ways of relating between individuals. Networking is now not just marked by the flow of media from the top down—it is, above all, a vast social phenomenon. This is our world, and it is a radically different place from the condition we once knew as modernity (or postmodernity for that matter).
 
Just imagine being alone today. There were 18 million mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 1992, when Augé’s book was published. Today there are over 3.3 billion. The United Nations estimates that by year’s end over 50% of the world’s population will own a mobile phone, double the number that has access to a landline. The mobile phone is now the world’s most ubiquitous gadget. Along with this comes a world of constant ambient communications: text messages (the Gartner Group estimates that some 1.9 trillion were sent in 2007), e-mail, and Internet-based data, are now flowing into our hands at a rapid clip. Computers too are increasingly mobile. Laptops are taking over from the fixed, heavy desktop “towers” (the very name evokes isolation!) and the massive CRT screen of the 80s and 90s. Outfitted with Wi-Fi, they allow us to communicate wherever we can get a connection.
 
Augé’s world of non-places is rapidly disappearing. The airport lounge is always outfitted with a Wi-Fi network, a last-minute place to dash off an email. Far from a place of alienation, the plane is now the business traveler’s last indulgence, an isolated sanctuary in which to catch up with work or to just relax without the threat of receiving a new e-mail to respond to.
 
One can, to be sure, be more alone than ever. But this happens by choice, when we plug in our iPods. Introduced in October 2001, the iPod was a runaway success worldwide. That it succeeded even though it was released just a month after the 9/11 attacks to a generally depressed consumer mood and an even more dismal economy points to its significance. The iPod allows us to paint the world with an emotional soundscape. Surrounding us with a feeling of intimacy, the iPod creates connection through the familiar sounds it reproduces for us.
 
Our world is one of connection, not disconnection. Through social networking sites, we reconnect with friends from prior jobs and schools, from days long gone by, and make new ones with little effort. When we see our “Facebook friends,” we feel we know them well. After all, we have been following their every move religiously. As we graduate from school, change jobs or move to new cities, our social networks come with us and our friends stay in touch by voice, by e-mail, and by instant messaging. Photo sharing sites make it possible to see our distant friends change over the years and specialized social networking sites like Delicious or Last.FM allow us to share in their interests. For future generations, the experience of rediscovering long-lost friends will be unfamiliar. Similarly, new friends are all too easy to make. Through social networking sites, we come to regard each other as old friends even before we have met.
 
If alienation was in part the product of feeling alone in a city or in mass society, misunderstood and unable to find others like oneself, today the Internet makes possible a boundless amount of information and a massive number of dispersed communities brought together around taste cultures. Interested in space history? There’s a place for you. Interested in Hello Kitty? Collecting owl stamps? Like to make military dioramas? How about knitting sexy clothes? Of course there’s a place for you, too. You can freely cultivate your eccentricities in an era where you can meet online with friends who share your desires.
 
Other communities emerge in virtual spaces that are more three-dimensional than textual. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or Everquest provide hours of interaction with players both near and far. To play in a raid with a spouse, a friend in the house next door and a soldier in Iraq is not uncommon at all today. Such online games now far surpass the revenues of even the largest major motion picture. 
 
But “mass media” has changed as well. Ours is a world of networked publics, in which consumers comment on and remix what they consume. Composed entirely of clips uploaded by individuals, YouTube threatens television networks. Snarky commentary on media is now the norm, much to the broadcasters’ chagrin. Individuals often create their own media—posting on blogs and online venues set up to display their creations, such as photo-sharing sites.
 
Even when consuming traditional media, consumers react back. In front of the television, they increasingly gravitate toward watching material as they wish. My own young children, for example, have little interest in, or understanding of, traditional television channels, even though they have hundreds of networks, not just three, to choose from. For them, watching a show “On Demand” is far superior to joining a show in mid-stream.
 
The simultaneity of the 1900s was a simultaneity that the inhabitants of that time could really only observe. They could read about what happened in China in the newspaper, but weren’t, generally speaking, involved. Once they put the newspaper down, the simultaneity ceased. Today’s simultaneity is pervasive, active not passive. While mom sets the dinner table, she checks her Blackberry for messages from work and the kids text their friends, or even each other—to get a giggle at dad’s expense. We live in a state of simultaneous environments. We are here and there, in multiple places at once. For many of us, this is our condition almost all the time.
 
The intimacy of the family is now replaced by the telecocoon. Coined by anthropologist Ichiyo Habuchi, a “telecocoon” refers to the steady, ambient conversation over SMS that keeps us together even when we are apart. Providing intimacy at a distance, the telecocoon provides the shared feeling of what Mizuko Ito calls “co-presence.” Like most of these new media, telecocoons foster feelings of connectedness, but at what cost? 
Instead of alienation and disconnection, today’s networked disorders center around addiction or inability to disconnect. The ease and rewards of the virtual world make it all too easy to retreat into it. Simmel suggested that we can only maintain so many connections with others. If you have 1,000 Facebook friends, how many real friends do you have? With online social networking making it easier to keep up casual virtual connections over real friendships, the future of human connection is unclear. Recent research by sociologists suggests that in the United States the number of confidants that people feel they can talk to about serious matters has dwindled from three to two in the space of one decade. We may have more connections, but are we any closer to each other?
 
As we drill down deep into the Long Tail, we focus on our own particular perversities and find comfort in those people most like us. We appreciate those who are mirrors of ourselves and recoil from those unlike us (ZOMG INCOMIN TROLL!!). If the public sphere of the nineteenth century was predicated on debate and deliberation, today we seem more polarized than ever. Reaching out to people unlike ourselves is almost painfully difficult. 
 
Compounding this, our own sense of self seems to have changed. If the nineteenth century individual felt overloaded by the impulses around them and shut down, we dissipate. As SMS, IM, e-mail, and push services such as Twitter compel our attention so that we don’t miss anything, we find it hard to focus. The Blackberry becomes the “Crackberry.” Continuous partial attention replaces our ability to concentrate on one task. Schoolchildren and scholars alike ignore libraries in favor of the Internet and surface grazing becomes more important than research in depth. That all this favors a sedentary lifestyle in front of the screen is also a concern as rising obesity, especially among
children, threatens our health.
 
Caught up in the benefits of all this, we also expose ourselves. Our notion of public and private is undone. If a few years ago, critics of social networking sites suggested that young people posting pictures of themselves at parties (or having sex!) might have a hard time getting jobs, today that idea seems as quaint as suggesting that a presidential candidate who had once smoked marijuana would not be viable. If anything, the record of a collective generation’s drunken college years humanizes them. The real concern, however, should be that we have collectively given up our right to privacy. Corporations and governments now know mind-boggling amounts of information about us. Our Web surfing habits, search and purchasing histories, even our physical locations are all tracked. The surveillance described by George Orwell in 1984 seems laughably outdated. Twenty years later, we live in a world in which privacy is a thing of the past. That no one has used that information to nefarious purposes is little comfort. We have given it up without second thought. What does this say about our sense of self?
 
During the next decade networked technologies will become more mobile and more pervasive. As the Internet grows into an “Internet of Things,” we will find ourselves surrounded by smart appliances. This threatens to push us back into a world of disconnection if the universalist qualities of the Web are undone. We can see early signs of this in the rise of the Internet-enabled smartphone. Here, the ubiquitous and universal Web browser has proven to be too cumbersome to be a primary interface. Instead, downloadable applications—sometimes for free, sometimes not—offer self-contained, often highly-designed experiences. On my iPhone, for example, I have apps for Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Talk, the New York Times, Bank of America, Delicious and so on. Similarly, on the desktop, the rise of web applications such as Google Docs has spurred the development of Single Site Browsers (SSBs). This seemingly innocent development suggests that the massive, networked public sphere constituted by the Web may yet splinter.
 
The world of micro-publics also threatens place as well. With access to more information than ever, we can find a community perfectly tailored to our political, social, and cultural interests. I confess that I am perfectly happy in my suburban town on the outskirts of the New York metropolitan region where people like me live, seeking very liberal suburban life. We all attend our July 4th parade but we give the most applause to the anti-Iraq-war marchers. Right-wingers are few and far between in these parts. There is a dark side to this. In “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of America is Tearing Us Apart,” journalist Bill Bishop uncovered that Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into homogeneous communities. As people worldwide gravitate to the places where others most like themselves live, face-to-face debate and dissent evaporate.
 
Network culture is as new to us today as modernity was to the people who lived a century ago. To prognosticate more than I already have is highly dangerous. But it is also necessary. If we can, as yet, do little to project the vast changes in society that will take place in the coming years, we need to watch warily, acting as techno-skeptics one day, techno-enthusiasts the other so as to ensure a world of greater meaning, democracy, and real social meaning and individuality.