Cathy Cruz Marrero was texting while walking in the Berkshire Mall in Reading, Pennsylvania, when she tumbled headfirst into a water fountain, getting completely drenched. Her pratfall was caught by the mall’s surveillance video and then posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed almost 2 million times.
“At such times the person’s face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on his body, but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter ….” Erving Goffman, “On Face-Work,” Interaction Ritual, p. 7.
I am in a phone meeting with a Hollywood producer. He’s just completed an animation sequence with one of the world’s famous actors. Although the finished work was superb, we’re worried the actor’s animated face isn’t looking real.
“Of all the objects in the world, the human body has a peculiar status: it is not only possessed by the person who has it, it also possesses and constitutes him. Our body is quite different from all the other things we claim as our own… Although we speak of our bodies as premises that we live in, it is a special form of tenancy: our body is where we can always be contacted, but our continued presence in it is more than a radical form of being a stick-in-the-mud. Our body is not, in short, something we have, it is a large part of what we actually are .…” Jonathan Miller, The Body in Question
“The imaginary universe is a place of astonishing richness and diversity: here are worlds created to satisfy an urgent desire for perfection, immaculate utopias such as Christianopolis or Victoria that hardly breathe; others, like Narnia or Wonderland, brought to life to find a home for magic, where the impossible does not clash with its surroundings; yet others, like Dream Kingdom, built to satisfy travellers bored with reality ….”
– Alberto Manguel, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Now was once an unconsidered state. It was undistinguished as air, valueless as belly lint. Now was whatever you were doing at the moment, whatever was happening around you or somewhere else at a given instant. It was an adverb, not a place like Cleveland.
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 prescient masterpiece, Persona, a thin young boy awakens in a hospital. He pulls a single, ill-fitting sheet over him and turns restlessly, tellingly, taking up his eyeglasses to read a book. Then, by deliberate contrast, he reaches to the camera lens. Next he walks over to blurry images of the faces of an actress (Liv Ullmann) and a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and his hand traces those images as though to understand them, to see if they are as real as they seem. The faces of the two women merge as the boy reaches out, trying to comprehend what he’s seeing.
“The question of proprioception, our sense of our bodily outline, will soon emerge as the key psychological issue confronting the new generation of technologically aware people.” – Derrick de Kerckhove
From Galen’s early explorations of human anatomy to the Blakeslees’ recent survey of body maps, humans have steadily wondered where the body ends and the world begins. In our own neatly skinned consciousness capsule, we travel embodied through time and space. Pathology—witness Oliver Sacks’ patient who didn’t recognize his clothes or even his own face and sang through eating and getting dressed in order to navigate the simplest routines—can make the body a stranger. But perhaps stranger still is that now our extrasensory expeditions are taking us, as e.e. cummings framed it, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.
“People used to walk with eyes to the sand and water,” using the example of people strolling at the seashore. “Now everyone walks with a device. No one is looking at the sand…. The technology which looked so good 15 to 20 years ago now looks like it helps us miss out on the complexities and grittiness and ups and downs of what real life has to offer.” – Sherry Turkle
We’ve misplaced our nouns. Our persons, places and things used to be here somewhere, but now they are somewhere else. Persons, aka friends, are not here. The lights from our gadgets beckon, we’re skin-hungry and still they’re out there somewhere, at the end of a text or swimming in our Facebook stream. Places like bookstores, once here, are now booted to a virtual there, accessible easily from millions, even billions, of devices but these are not the place—they are access to the place. And things! We now have an Internet of things, a horn of plenty of stuff that is connected to other stuff. Most of that stuff isn’t here either.
‘I was giving birth to our son, and instead of holding my hand and hugging me he was sitting in the corner entering the time between my contractions into a spreadsheet.’
Joe and Lisa Betts-LaCroix, self-trackers
There is a new logic afoot. It is a meme of staggering proportions that capitalizes on using the endless minutiae of everyday life to inform and enlighten us. From DailyBurn, a web site where you can track your body information (weight, body fat percentage), including workouts, nutrition, and challenges; to Sleep Cycle, an iPhone alarm clock app that analyzes your sleep patterns and wakes you when you are in the lightest sleep phase, the quantified self holds a compelling promise: to know yourself, quantify yourself.
Few people have as fully realized a Metalife as Hasan Elahi. Its necessity, a case of mistaken identity, was the mother of considerable invention. In 2002, when he stepped off a flight from the Netherlands, he was detained at the Detroit airport. FBI agents later told him they had been tipped off that he was hoarding explosives in a Florida storage unit. While subsequent lie detector tests convinced them he wasn’t their man, Elahi knew after this detention he would be carefully watched.
The Blind Men and the Elephant, a story dating back to the 13th century, has been used by Sufis, Hindus, and Jain, among others to convey a profound truth: we describe the world based on local observation, blind to the larger picture. This parable of how we understand the world now comes with a twist. Today as vast quantities of information come via numerous communication tools, each tool gives us a useful but incomplete view. Once the world was a simple, lone elephant; now the world is buzzing with digital pachyderms. The story rings true while it has gone high-tech: we are still groping around for a comprehensive understanding but now the elephants are in stampede.