Flesh and Machine

Picture me sitting in the dark of my home office, staring in disbelief at two things. Number one, the absurd number of open tabs in my browser. One of those tabs — though at this level of crowding, it’s impossible to visually identify which — is my Pocket account, which itself has an absurd list of articles I’ve saved at some point with the naive intention to read. Why do we do this to ourselves? Bury ourselves in information, I mean? At some level, we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t think it was necessary. But at some point, we have to ask, is it actually necessary? And if not — and let’s be honest, it’s probably not — why do we think it is? The thing is, I’m terrified to wipe all this stuff out. But I know that’d be the smart thing to do. Number two is the absurdly large pile of shredded tree that has been deposited at the end of my driveway. And really, I’m figuratively staring at it — looking, in my mind’s eye, through several walls to the other side of my house — but I assure you, seeing the great, big pile when I arrived home last evening scared me so deeply that its image is burned, in great detail, in my mind. I’m not scared of the pile, of course. I’m scared of the hundreds of wheelbarrow trips I’ll be making to redistribute it over part of the back yard where we will eventually invite a few chickens to come and live. Also, I need to buy a wheelbarrow. And a robot. Startup opportunity: lawn robot by day, tabs reader by night. Send all proposals to YComb, guys.

I’m not against wearable technology. Despite the fact that I ranted a bit about the Apple Watch last week — yeah, I dramatically called it “the disappointment of now,” but, to be clear, my little rant was much more about market forces than it was about the object itself — I’m actually pretty enthusiastic about wearable technology. (And I’m going to try my darnedest to not use the term “wearables.” Ever.) But yes, I like wearing technology. Clothing is technology. I prefer wearing it to being naked in public. Most of my clothing has pockets. Pockets are a very useful technology. I almost always have my wallet in my left pocket and my phone in my right pocket. Both are wearable technology. With my office keycard in my wallet, all I have to do is lean my left leg against the door sensor and, open sesame! Useful! With my phone in my right pocket set to vibrate, I get a nice little buzz when someone is trying to reach me. I use these wearable technologies many times every single day. Many of my shirts have pockets, too, and sometimes I put a pen or my glasses in them. More wearable technology. Oh, and glasses! Well, obviously. You wear them; they help you see. What else? Earbuds! I love my earbuds. I couldn’t get through a run or a workout or a flight without them. So look, I know I’m being a bit glib about all of this. I know that when most people talk about “wearable technology,” they are not being pedantic dorks and referring to any technology that one might routinely carry and use on their person. They’re not thinking about belts and winter coats and mittens and hats and gas mask and helmets… or even watches. I think what has pushed the concept out of the ignorable mundane and into the moral panic du jour is the degree to which a technology focuses our attention and mediates our experience of the world. So, an otherwise inert RFID sensor in my pocket that opens a door? Well that’s just a faster key. So who cares. The phone in my pocket? So what. It’s only when it comes out of my pocket and becomes my lens for looking at the world that we start to fuss and editorialize about it. Whether by way of the internet, social media, or smartphones, we’re trying to figure out what it means to lead This Mediated Life.

And of course, there’s much more going on around this issue of mediation than just what I decide is good or healthy for me, isn’t there? There’s a prescriptivism to this, for sure. It’s about what’s good for us as a society, as a synthesis of all the what’s-good-for-me conclusions we are wont to make. After all, there is a sense in which someone else’s adoption of wearable technology is a form of mediation for you, isn’t there? Staring into the lens of another person’s camera is a mediated experience. Whether it’s a traditional camera, or a phone, or (shudder) Google Glass, looking past the lens is an act of straddling mediation. It’s something you wouldn’t do if the lens wasn’t there. And really, isn’t simply questioning whether a companion (or stranger) is capturing some form of information from you — your image or your voice, say — a mediated experience? That the technological layer doesn’t physically attach to you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect you physically or psychologically. I think this idea — whether filed under the heading “Privacy” or not — is what makes the currently visible horizon of wearable technology so problematic. Or interesting. See, it’s not just a matter of whether a technology’s mediation erodes the “purity” of one’s life in the world. It’s the added layer of whether someone else’s choice to use a certain technology is intrinsically a violation of your choice to not use it. Can a case be made for whether that same issue was at play when the printing press gave us printed things to look at instead of being obviously available for conversation, or when the automobile robbed us of our quiet evenings, or when city lights killed stargazing? Sure. All of those things could have been discussed in a similar way, and are indicative of the continually shifting boundaries between the technological and the “natural” and the choices we make to acknowledge or ignore them. But these latest questions are so much more intimate. They’ve become about bodies — our bodies — not abstract bodies. And so now, we have another boundary to consider, don’t we? I think acknowledging the question needs to be safe for anyone to do, about any technology, without being branded a luddite. In the meantime, I’m kind of a fan of lines of demarcation coming in the form of signs like these. Oh, and look! I got through this whole thought without using the word “cyborg!”

Remember the screensaver? (SETI, as in Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.) The screensaver was released in 1999, and I definitely recall downloading it right away and running it on my old Windows desktop in my college dorm. (Here’s a video of the earliest version I could find.) The idea was kind of neat. It was basically a volunteer distributed computing project packaged in a screensaver. You installed it and when your machine was idle, the screensaver ran while the program used your computer’s processing power to sift through SETI signal data. Anyway, that was probably the first time SETI came on my radar. That, coupled with having seen Contact sometime around then, gave me the impression that SETI was a very 90s thing. Turns out, SETI-type work has been going on for a much longer time than I thought. In fact, did you know that way back in 1924, a very rare alignment of Mars and earth sparked a “National Radio Silence Day” campaign that called for all broadcasts to cease for five minutes every hour so that the United States Naval Observatory could use a large antenna traveling two miles above Earth in a dirigible to listen for any incoming Martian messages? In a dirigible! This is for real! As wacky as it may sound, this program was given attention from people at the highest level of the military, like Admiral Edward W. Eberle, Chief of Naval Operations, and William Friedman, Chief Cryptographer of the US Army. In fact, here’s a telegram from Eberle to all US Naval stations instructing them to “PREPARE FOR CONTACT.” It must have been interesting to be alive when the government still publicly intersected with the fringe.

Heavy Rotation: The Sounds and Music of the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer was a fitting soundtrack to the section on wearable tech and mediation — at least conceptually. It’s fascinating to listen to what a computer of 1995 could produce and consider what a painstaking technical challenge it was to make that happen. But it’s not easy to listen to. You’ll see what I mean. Similarly, Syro, the first release from Aphex Twin in thirteen years, is not exactly frictionless music. I listened to it while on my run this morning, and to be honest, didn’t love it. It made me wonder, has everything that can be done with electronic music been done? Or is Syro just not that interesting? I dunno. People seem to like it a whole lot, so maybe I’m just wrong about this. Anyway, I’ll take the new Daniel Lanois stuff over Syro right now. After hearing his latest song, Opera on All Songs Considered, I’m really looking forward to the release of Lanois’ latest album, Flesh and Machine. There’s that theme again!

Recent Tabs: If it’s not obvious from the rest of this post, we are living in the future, and AT&T told us so. Our Ubik world is coming; enjoy the sarcasm while you can. Hey, America, let’s do as the Brits do, only partway kinda. And totally unrelated to everything else in this email, Film School in Six Minutes.

Written by Christopher Butler on October 1, 2014,   In Essays

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