Tag Archives: communication

Final Fantasy

On February 23, 2008, close to 200 volunteers flushed, at coordinated intervals, every toilet and urinal at newly built Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., to ensure the pipes could handle the load.

Imagine a moment when everyone in the world with a cellphone sent each other a smiley face emoji at the same time—not to test the limits of all the networks, just for shits and giggles. Put yourself in that micro-second between everyone hitting send in unison and the possibility that no one would remain on the planet afterwards to respond. Are we not right now suspended between the fantasy of synchronized global suicide and its fulfillment via technology?

Humans are all equal before the Law of Communication. We’re compelled to send and receive information—useless information. In fact the more useless, the better. Just do it. Just speak.

Technology actualizes every possibility. If our ultimate wish is to destroy reality, technology will make it happen.

The most efficient way to eliminate reality is to realize every fantasy. Realizing every fantasy, however, destroys the symbolic power of fantasy itself. We’re left with a literal translation of every metaphor, a logical explanation for every random thought. No more latent content to our dreams–every secret must be dragged out of our minds like a false confession and streamed “as is” in real time. Data infestations, digital plagues: such is our new manifest destiny.

The most radical message left for us is to say nothing at all.

Until then imagine a moment when everyone on the planet with a cellphone refused, at the same time, to send a text. Or a moment when everyone on the planet flushed a cellphone down a toilet. Dream up a fantasy so spectacular it threatens to end the world and then, for the sake of fantasy, make sure it never happens.

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The Empathy Of Communication

In The Pathology of Communicative Capitalism, David W. Hill alerts us to the power of empathy, a skill under siege in the digital age:

Empathy is a craft of understanding and responding to other people. It requires attentive communication, listening to others, and responding to the other person such that communication progresses whilst keeping the differences between interlocutors intact, so constituting a meaningful encounter since the other person is met on his or her own terms. Is there any time left for this kind of empathetic communication? Is there any space available? (50)

I asked similar questions in my book, The Intimacy of Communication, earlier this year, wondering aloud if there’s “space for intimacy in a hyper-connected world.” It’s nice to see I’m not the only writer concerned about smartphone addiction in what’s known today as the attention economy.

Empathy is not extinct, of course, but it’s definitely not trending on Twitter. It’s hard to connect with humans across the table from us when our heads are buried in our smartphones. I can’t recognize your uniqueness or meet you on your own terms on a first date, for instance, when I’m lost in thoughtlessness on Facebook.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man, I admit I’m worried about kids these days, the cohort known as Generation Z. Gen Z follows Gen Y, also called millennials, which follows Gen X. Anyone born after 2001, the theory goes, is part of Generation Z. Given we’ve reached the end of the alphabet, I hope we haven’t reached the end of the evolutionary line.

The more I see kids attached to electronic devices, the more I sense we’ve been invaded by Generation Zombie. Rather than pick their parents’ brains for knowledge or existential templates for approaching the world, Gen Z wants to eat them. They know everything, in screenshot form. They’re born digital consumers browsing through history, with no concern for the past. “No ideas,” to invoke the spirit of poet William Carlos Williams, “but in images of images of things.”

You can’t empathize with an avatar when you’re trying to kill it, even if the human behind it is your best friend in real life. Pretty soon the character of empathy will be harder to find than the rarest Pokémon.

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Solitary Refinement

Where technology is concerned on this blog, there’s a method to my snarky-ness. I value sustained, intimate communication—texting and tweeting and status-posting constitute speech at a distance. Messaging is instant but superficial. Rather than opening up a dialogue, we’re speaking to externalized versions of ourselves whose friendship means liking the same piano-playing cat video.

Being somewhat tech-adverse and wholly introverted, I enjoy plenty of alone time. Some might find retreating to one’s room to ponder the absurdity of existence a sign of depression. They’d be half right: philosophy makes me sad, but as a philosopher of sadness I gain some control over my depression.

Sometimes I need to check connections I’ve made in my mind against the reality outside my head. This requires talking to others. I’ve authored some meaningful albeit abstract pieces, but other people have a way of challenging theories merely by being themselves in a way I am not. The best ideas come from spontaneous encounters with people I’m simultaneously delighted and terrified to be around.

It’s hard to be vulnerable. In protect mode I tell myself over and over that I’m too vulnerable—that my soul’s exposed, a wound too raw to bear. Then I hide from the world. And miss potential connections.

There is freedom in seeing one’s limitations and recognizing we all get caught up in negative self-talk. Maybe this makes me a better philosopher. Maybe it just makes me human.

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The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.

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Small Minds Think Alike

“The future of the book is the blurb.” –Marshall McLuhan, 1964

The miniaturization of the mind is upon us. There’s always a use for BIGGER, but life these days keeps getting smaller. Twitter is the microchip of language. The economy of words forgoing richness for a poverty of thought. Books blabber. Who has the time? McLuhan must be laughing from beyond the grave. Brevity has become the soul of twit.

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I, Phone (Part Two)

Everyone requires a cell phone now; to debate this point is akin to doubting gravity or arguing that time moves in reverse. My iPhone distinguishes me from all non-iPhone users. It expresses me. It’s an extension of my being, a form of identification on my person at all times.

The iPhone as fashion statement. The lucky hipster at the front of the Best Buy line shouting, “I have the latest model.” He’s bought a device for communicating, but he’s actually consuming Communication. He has messages to get across, but it’s not their content that matters: he has to send and share and speak because everybody’s doing it. Everybody has a voice. Who cares what you say as long as you say it.

But with everybody talking at the same time my voice sounds like a whisper into a jet engine. Our world of hyper-communication is built on harmony and dissonance. Our bodies are overloaded, our minds frazzled: hyper-communicating leaves us vulnerable to nonsense, noise and nuisance.

We get away from the Conversation by conversing with our mobile devices. The iPhone user talks to his iPhone as it talks to him. He is mesmerized by all the bells and whistles and in touching/tapping/scrolling leaves the moment. The very thing that connects him to others allows him to disconnect temporarily; it’s a coping mechanism, survival mode. A pocket of air on a sinking ship.

It’s family dinner. Father playing Angry Birds. Mom amused by Grumpy Cat. Children tuning out with Spotify playlists.

Being in touch all day makes us want to lose touch. My iPhone brings the world to me one minute and takes me out of it the next. It speaks volumes about me without conveying my disgust at feeling forced to communicate all the time, even when there’s nothing left to say.

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I, Phone (Part One)

Professor Martin Irvine, founding director of the Communication, Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University, has an interesting way of looking at the iPhone. In a presentation called “Deblackboxing Technology: Mediology and Actor Network Theory,” located on his website, Irvine opens our eyes to the inner workings of the iPhone.

We look at a device like the iPhone as a series of inputs and outputs. We turn it on and expect the device to work. This assumption, according to Irvine, is a function of the blackbox quality of the iPhone. Apple sells us a device that appears simple or user-friendly without revealing the secret worlds behind its interface.

According to Irvine, if we take apart or “deblackbox” it, we find that the iPhone is “a system of prior technology functions and social mediation deployed through the logic of combinatorial hybridity and hypermediation.”

Inside the iPhone exist the following technologies: mobile telephony (radio frequencies); computer chip makers; data transmission that includes Internet connections through telecom providers and ISPs; transaction systems and banking networks; digital voice, image and sound codecs; and GPS, to name a few (Irvine, “Deblackboxing Technology,” slide 36).

All of these processes are dependent upon or are the result of “institutions/regulatory regimes/patents/licenses” that originate within “business/economic ecosystems/manufacturers” and are shaped by (and in turn shape) “demographics/markets/social and cultural practices” (Irvine, slide 36).

So what, the average user says, I like my iPhone because it just works. I am free to use my mobile device as I choose.

Not so fast, says Irvine.

“We say the user ‘plays music on the iPhone’—but the user has no agency or experience apart from the system operations, software prompts, and a complex background system of other agencies and mediations…” (Irvine, slide 43).

I use my iPhone as I see fit but its operation far exceeds my comprehension; its inner workings determine my experience. Mobile devices, many believe, make life easier, but in many ways we’re simply blind to the fact that hidden worlds are operating before and over us—worlds far too complex to put a finger on.

And so we worship the iPhone for all that we see it doing and all that it conceals from us. Arthur C. Clarke was on to something when he wrote in 1962 that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That we convince ourselves we’re in charge of our gadgets is the real trick.

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