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.

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.

 

The Selfie: To Live is To Be Photographed

mobile behaviour
Images captured from Instagram using #phone

Susan Sontag, On Photography

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power.
As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.
…dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing….

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to an experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.

Jose Van Dijck, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age

Whereas their parents invested considerable time and effort in building up material collections of pictures for future reference, youngsters appear to take less interest in sharing photographs as objects than as sharing them as experiences. [p.114]

Digital photography is part of this larger transformation in which the self becomes the center of a virtual universe made up of informational and spatial flows, individuals articulate their identity as social beings not only by taking and storing photographs to document their lives but also by by participating in communal photographic exchanges that mark their identity as interactive producers and consumers of culture.
From the above observations it is tempting to draw the conclusion that digital cameras are moving away from their prime functions as memory tools, instead becoming tools for identity formation, communication, and experience. If photographs were always a medium for remembering scenes and objects from the past, digital cameras particularly encourage users to imagine and invent the present.[p.116]

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

Gradually we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. the simplification of relationship is no longer a source of compliant. It becomes what we want. Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? [p.17]

Arms held high; cell phone glint in the sun. People are taking pictures of themselves, of strangers, of friends…The event is a celebration of physical presence, but the crowd reaches out to those who are absent. It is important to have images of the day on one’s own phone. And it is important to send them along. A photo from the inauguration, or a text, a posting, an email, a Tweet – all validate the sense of being there. It used to be that taking a photograph marked participation…But these days, the photograph is not enough. Sending implies being….We are pressed into the service of technologies of remembrance and validation. [p.302]

Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinska, Life After New Media

Our argument is that events are never merely presented and represented in the media, and that any such representations are always to an extent performative. [xvi]

If indeed to live is to be photographed, then contrary to its more typical association with the passage of time and death, photography can be understood more productively in terms of vitality, as a process of differentiation and life-making. [p.72]

..if we are to think about photography in terms of mediation – whereby mediation stands for the differentiation of, as well as the connection between, media and, more broadly, for the acts and processes of producing and temporarily stabilizing the world into media , agents and relations, and networks – we need to see the ontology of photography as predominantly that of becoming.[p.79]

Life is the Medium

mediated life and the mobile phone
Photo: Michael Sohn / AP

“Arms held high; cell phone glint in the sun. People are taking pictures of themselves, of strangers, of friends…The event is a celebration of physical presence, but the crowd reaches out to those who are absent. It is important to have images of the day on one’s own phone. And it is important to send them along. A photo form the inauguration, or a text, a posting, an email, a Tweet – all validate the sense of being there. It used to be that taking a photograph marked participation…But these days, the photograph is not enough. Sending implies being….We are pressed into the service of technologies of remembrance and validation.” – Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, page 302.