Love-Hate Technology Narratives

‘And just as the medium obeys the voice that takes possession of him from beyond the grave, I submitted to the first proposal that came my way through the telephone’. – Walter Benjamin (1932)

In the early 1930s the German essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin penned a weirdly prescient piece about technology simply titled ‘The Telephone’. Alongside other essays about his childhood in Berlin at the turn of the 20th Century, Benjamin depicts the sometimes haunting but oftentimes animated dynamics surrounding the family’s landline telephone.  First, the phone was relegated to the darker recesses of the house, but later ‘the apparatus, like a legendary hero once exposed to die in a mountain gorge, left the dark hallway in the back of the house to make its way into the cleaner and brighter rooms that now were inhabited by a younger generation’. In another succinct paragraph he writes that,

‘Not many of those who use the apparatus know what devastation it once wreaked in family circles. The sound with which it rang between two and four in the afternoon, when a schoolfriend wished to speak to me, was an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped this siesta’.  – Walter Benjamin (1932)

Berlin Childhood around 1900 by Walter Benjamin, 2006, Harvard University Press.

Eight decades after Benjamin’s essay and it seems not much has changed about our relationships with the phone or technology in general. While phones are now mobile and almost ubiquitous, they’re still sites of contestation and ambiguity.

In 2010 when I conducted ethnographic interviews about intimacy in mobile communication between couples, almost all the interviewees reported mixed feelings, at one time cursing their mobile for being a socially corrosive element in their lives and in another instance describing the phone as an ‘absolute lifeline’. Michael Arnold calls this ambiguity the Janus-faces of mobile phones, that is, that mobiles ‘perform in ways that are ironic, perverse and paradoxical.’  In research Arnold calls for ‘foregrounding uncertainty’. A few other titles make similar points about ambiguity as part of phone culture, like Rich Ling and Scott Campbell’s Mobile Communication: Bringing Us Together and Tearing Us Part (2010) and Sherry Turkle’s paradoxically titled Alone Together (2011).


Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, 2011, Basic Books

It’s perhaps the ambiguity that is the most interesting dimension of phone culture, as compared to the dominant oppositions that often present in popular discourse. By extreme oppositions I mean that typically we are presented with narratives of how technology SAVES THE WORLD. Evidence of this is littered all over the web. See Quartz’s piece: Here’s how mobile technology is saving Africans from humanitarian disasters or How Mobiles Phones Are Transforming Africa. But, the most entertaining examples of techno utopianism are best exemplified by industry captains who just remind us that technology ROCKS!

The opposite presents in persuasive narratives about the dystopian effects of technology, look no further than Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror series.

Or, for a more academically inclined version of dystopia, check out any of Adam Curtis’ documentaries, HyperNormalisation (2016) and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), that expertly petrifies and persuades us of the sinister psychodynamics that prevail in society, often mediated by technology.

These extreme oppositions – Techno Utopia and Techno Dystopia – feel a little blunt, even simplified, considering how ambiguous we feel about our personal technologies.

It’s not easy navigating the somewhat weird in-between space of feeling both delighted and repulsed by technology (or what new technology enables).

To address this issue, the brilliant Amsterdam-based Next Nature Network present a compelling counter narrative, one filled with provocation and trepidation. They seem to be perpetually asking WHAT IF? Like, what if you could order a shoe made from your very own genetically modified stingray? The answer lies in their mockumentary titled The Rise and Fall of Rayfish Footwear.

Or, what if meat wasn’t animal based but rather grown in a lab?  Check out their In Vitro Meat Cook Book

What emerges from Next Nature is a playful gesture to this in-between space of technology narratives that doesn’t spell disaster or enlightenment, but provocatively kickstarts your imagination about our relationship with technology. Rather than present a clear cut answer, their projects playfully illicit a reaction about the outer-limit possibilities of nature and culture.

Nostalgic narratives: the last of a generation

Author Adam Alter, launched his book titled Irresistible (Super Verslavend in Dutch)  amongst a panel discussion of internet critics and commentators in Amsterdam recently. There are similar antecedents for some of Irresistible’s key narratives — I’m thinking of Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicolas Carr –offering a dystopian and unnerving perspective on technology and our relationship with devices. There’s definitely enough evidence to support Alter’s claims on mobile phone addiction, look no further than the statistics scattered throughout his book like, “75% of people can reach their smartphone without moving their feet”.  But, as I commented to Alter and the panel during this lecture, these kinds of narratives, that suggest that technology impacts us in ways that somehow corrode social cohesion, denies elements of human agency, while also supposing that using your phone doesn’t constitute a viable emerging form of sociability. Alter’s seems like a nostalgic narrative at best, one that even he admitted will disappear with our current generation (I think he’s referring to Generation X).

Irresistible Adam Alter

 

A excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s review of Sherry Turkle’s new book titled ‘Reclaiming Conversation’

Our digital technologies aren’t politically neutral. The young person who cannot or will not be alone, converse with family, go out with friends, attend a lecture or perform a job without monitoring her smartphone is an emblem of our economy’s leechlike attachment to our very bodies. Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.

 

Mobiles, Memories and Image

Captured in a searingly real and beautiful photo essay, photographer Grey Hutton (vice.com) shows how memory, migration and mobiles are entangled. In the context of the migration crisis in Europe, mobile phones embody mobility on a massive scale – across oceans not just cities. And with mobility comes memory, travelling as mobile background images. Vice.com

Embedded in the captions are significant narratives about cultural integration: “Nobody wears jeans there”; surveillance “At night, the police could see the light” and affect as a motivator “It’s a reminder of a great moment”.

Smartphones and refugees

 “This is a picture of me and my Christian friend fishing in Kurdistan. It’s a nice memory and I like to have it with me.”

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 “This is a photograph of my wife’s mother. She was killed by IS in Libya. I’ve had this phone for 10 years. I only use it for important things, really.”

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“The journey would never have been possible without this phone. I used it all the time, both on land and at sea.”

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“I used the GPS to navigate the boat to Greece. Only during the day, though. At night, the police could see the light.”

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“This is the son of one of my friends. The photo was taken in Hamburg at a camp we stayed in. It’s a reminder of a great moment.”

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“This is the traditional dress of the Pashtun. It reminds me of where I’m from in Pakistan. Nobody wears jeans there.”

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“We used balloons and tape to protect our phones from the water.”

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“I lost my smartphone in the ocean on the journey. I’m going out buy a new one as soon as I have money.”

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“This is my four children. The phone was really useful for teaching them a few German words and keeping them busy with games while we were travelling.”

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“This picture was the background on my old phone. I don’t know how to transfer it to the new phone my mother gave me. It’s a picture of my brother, who was killed by IS. My other brother was killed by Assad’s forces.”

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“This is my daughter. She’s still in Syria, but we talk every morning, evening and night.”

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“This is a Lebanese pop star called Elissa. During my trip, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to music. Now that I’m in Germany, I feel like it again.”

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“Our phones are extremely important to us.” (Somali couple)

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“I chose this background because it reminds me of my mother. I’m 16 years old and this photo is my only way of staying in touch with my family and friends.”

Migration & Mobiles

Disturbing but not unexpected narratives are circulating about migrants and refugees traveling to Europe, centered on nationalist fears, job losses and worst of all – skepticism about the severity of refugee plights. Some narratives find expression in social media memes circulating on Twitter and Facebook like this one…

Australian Body builder not refugees

Vice.com

Props to writer Philip Kleinfeld and Vice.com for exposing the paranoid bullshit content of these memes – which are often blatantly falsified.  The image above has nothing to do with European refugees, in fact it were taken in 2013 on Christmas Island in Australia.

Some narratives have centered on the crippled logic that smartphones are a sign of prosperity and are in conflict with refugee life. While the veracity of memes cannot be trusted, the content of these narratives – specifically the relationship between people and technology and what this signifies – are still incredibly interesting to analyse, succinctly done by the blog Everyday Analysis:

Migration Meme

The horrible meme makes out that fleeing a war zone and the traumas associated with that is not enough to deserve our sympathy if you have a Samsung phone. Possess a symbol of capitalist success and modernity, manage a smile of relief and, in our unforgiving political climate, a traumatised refugee is be deemed a fraud….in the eyes of the British right, why should a refugee not have a mobile phone? …why should a refugee not take a selfie?

In the end this meme shows us three things. First, it quite simply and obviously shows how much hateful fascism there is in our society. Second, it shows how these structures are still supported by a colonial ideology that sees the passage to modernity as the natural course of events and does not want to admit that this trauma and devastation is a modern problem that our own brand of modernity is responsible for. Third, it warns us of the danger of our preconceptions and expectations when it comes to refugees and shows us how deeply ingrained in right wing ideology some of our assumptions may be.

everyday analysis See the full feature on Everyday Analysis.

When Queen Victoria Calls You

The Telegraph

 

Thirty-five statues across London and Manchester have begun telling tales of the past through the voices of recognisable British actors and personalities, with words from our best writers.

To hear the statues, who first clear their throats today, visitors need to swipe their smartphones over signs near the statues. The phone will then ring and the monologues begin.

Playing some of our most notable characters from history – along with Dick Whittington’s Cat – will be Patrick Stewart, as the haunting voice of the unknown soldier at Paddington Station; Jeremy Paxman, who will defend free speech as John Wilkes in Fetter Lane; and Prunella Scales, as Queen Victoria, both on Blackfriars Bridge and in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

The statues will be brought to life as part of a project by Sing London (singlondon.org), a non-profit arts organisation, with the intention of lifting the nation’s spirits.