by Barry Chudakov on November 30th, 2011

Where Is Here?

“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 am not particularly bothered that, as David Weinberger told us, everything is miscellaneous. The parceling of all sorts of sortables from books to bicycles into bits by the billions is changing the world in untold peachy ways. No, I am unsettled by something more basic. In the dash to digital dazzle, something odd happened. We left open the door to the future and here got up and left.

Here doesn’t live here anymore. Here is derived from Old English her “in this place, where one puts himself.” So what happens when you are not actually in this place where you put yourself?

What happens is that as here goes there, you can lose your place.

 

Here ... Flickr, Bhamgal, all rights reserved.

 

THE HERENESS OF YOU

It’s not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me, oh no
It’s just the here-ness of you

In Winifred Gallagher’s excellent study of how our surroundings shape our thoughts, emotions and actions, The Power of Place, she reminds us that our sense of place begins in the womb:

“The unique feature of our first place is, of course, that it is also a person.”

She goes on to say:

“Like our intimate social bonds, particularly the first, our relationship with the larger world is built from countless sensory interactions between us and our settings. In a very real sense, the places in our lives get ‘under our skin’ and influence our behavior in ways that we don’t often suspect.”

As highly social animals, we experience a person-ness of place, which entails sharing where we are with someone who is in here with us. But today we outsource the sharing. Shortly after the primal scream, as infants leave wombworld they are greeted by the gynecologist, the scrub nurses—and an iPhone:

“It’s the beginning of an important shift, as parents increasingly are handing their iPhones to their 1 ½-year-old kid as a shut-up toy. And parents who check their e-mail three times on the way to the bus stop are constantly modeling that behavior, so it’s only natural the kids want to use mobile devices too.”

 

Ezra-Leapster, Flickr, JeremyOK, some rights reserved.

 

We are learning earlier than ever that there-ness is an acceptable surrogate for here-ness. Ram Dass famously said Be Here Now. He didn’t go on much about there. There was where he thought we shouldn’t be if we are here because if we are here and we somehow believe we are there, or we want to be there when we are here, then we are certainly not here. We may not be there either, we may be off on a tweener mental tangent (somewhere between here and there) or lost in reverie or merely deluded. But we are not here.

“The concern that we have is [screens are] distracting to the parent, so the parent is talking less to the child, there’s less parent-child conversation, which is important for language development,” said Dr. Ari Brown, lead author of the AAP’s revised guidelines on toddlers and TV. “And it’s also distracting for the child.”

Here-ness has the quality of what we might call sacred acknowledgement, also called mindfulness or presence. Researchers say distracted infants and toddlers (not to mention more than a few adults) are more likely to abandon an activity quickly which may affect their ability to learn to organize information and make decisions “when they’re not having the experience of being really focused on the activity that’s at hand,” according to Brown.

Today 40% of people who own smartphones use them while watching TV. So are we here or there? As we increasingly move our lives to digital environments, or move more of our engagements to virtual stages and spaces, being here becomes problematic. This is a core Metalife dilemma. Are my friends on Facebook here? How here is my lover or good friend when I’m trying to text him? Or when I receive a text from her? When I’m an avatar? A Telepresence in the operating room?

 

Monash University medical students using Cisco TelePresence system, Flickr, Cisco Pics, all rights reserved.

 

THE POWER OF PLACE

Yet finding our place is problematic not only because we are absent here.

Place-as-prison has driven many a teenager to commit suicide, has made others feel their lives were lived in ‘quiet desperation’ or goaded them to give up hope. Viktor Frankl famously addressed this issue from the hellish confines of a concentration camp where he discovered the marvelous realization of a space or place of freedom between any situation and our view of the situation.

Today our lives and Metalives are encountering the power of place anew. The physicalness of our places is counteracted by the nimble navigability of our tools that seamlessly project us into a virtual resemblance to places we know. While “painted cakes do not satisfy hunger” as the Zen saying goes, we enter (jack into) a Second Life easily enough, revealing that place may not be as fixed as we think. That’s a good thing if you’re feeling stuck. But it might also be bad if you are lonely, thinking your friends are in a certain (virtual) place and you cannot find them or they somehow let you down by not being here, available, present with you.

Virtual reality is challenging our notion of here and there on a number of fronts. It used to be that we all agreed on a place-based reality. We worked in a field or in a factory. We drove down a paved street and worked in an office made of concrete and steel; now a new study reveals that telecommuting is disorienting to workers and may make life more stressful for parents than if they moved the here of home back to the there of the office.

Previously If we went to war, we fought by land, sea or air. Not any more. From the military personnel learning to fly wartime aircraft in virtual simulations or receiving augmented reality therapy (ART) for PTSDs, to people who ‘live’ in augmented reality maps to show us what’s happening in a remote location, reality is changing faster than we realize—and here is no longer here.

 

 

Nor is it any longer ours. It now takes a mere 10 digits of information to label uniquely each human being on the planet, according to Dr Ari Juels, the chief scientist of security vendor, RSA. We leave tell-tale snippets on websites that can pinpoint our geographical location, tell what kind of computer and browsers we are using, or carry things in our handbag that act like mini-tracking devices. Small wireless microchips, RFID tags, are in car keys, credit cards, passports, building entrance badges, and transit passes. They emit unique serial numbers that can be traced back to us, so our there-ness now has a here-ness in someone else’s hands. In fact, the very bacteria on our hands can be used in forensic identification, in the same way as DNA. Researchers have discovered that the “communities” of bacteria living on a person’s skin are different for each individual.

Or consider the increasingly ubiquitous gaming places. Economist Edward Castronova wrote:

“We are witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”

 

 

Today in business-related and gaming settings humans are both here and there, entering virtual worlds as avatars, surrogates of themselves. As the Harvard Business Review reported, “employees at American companies like IBM, Accenture, Cisco, State Farm, Intel, BP and Wells Fargo log into virtual worlds and use avatars to brainstorm with colleagues, recruit employees, sell to customers, attend leadership training, manage programs, direct operation centers, and collaborate with company groups around the world.” While these seem like useful and practical endeavors, beneath the surface of business-as-usual, the here-ness and there-ness of human interaction changes when people interact with digital rather than physical versions of each other. According to Jeremy Bailenson who studies how human interaction changes when people interact with avatars:

Watching “their” avatar eat, human subjects “reported feeling sick, feeling full, really changing their physiology…. If it looks real and it feels real and it smells real, the brain tells us it’s real.”

So, is the virtual there as real as the here where I am?

As one gamer I interviewed admitted to me, speaking of a new gaming rig: “this effectively eliminates the line between video games and real life.”

And that brings us full circle to the question of whether we are losing our place. A central Metalife question looms: where is here, anyway? And am I losing my place in this toggle between the there-ness of digital worlds and my here-ness, whatever that may be?

These are not abstract or fanciful questions. As the Zen masters would say, our true self is neither here nor there. But that may be of little comfort for those of us feeling somehow out of place.

 

You Are Here - MSCED 19/02, Flickr, Seven_Hundred, all rights reserved.

 

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2 Comments
  1. cartagena jack permalink

    Bravo to Mr. Chudakov. Why are we doing this to ourselves? I have conversations with people now who are barely paying attention to me – they are having an affair with their iphone. I wonder if this technology is somehow literally physiologically addicting. Does it do to our brain what drugs or porn do – so that people can’t go on living without the high of the technology hit?

    Just today I was behind a car that was weaving and moving 12 miles an hour under the speed limit. I pulled out to pass the guy and he was texting, oblivious to the road or anything else. When we came up side by side at a construction stop I talked to him thru my, and his, open window and asked him to please stop texting and start paying attention to driving – he looked at me glassy eyed and went back to texting. When I drove off he was still sitting there, a line of vehicles behind him.

    A time and a place for everything.

    Thank you for this most informative article Barry Chudakov.

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