This is the start of a paper I am going to be giving at TAPRA in a few weeks time. I thought I’d post the intro here to see if anyone has anything they think I’ve got horribly wrong so far – and to invite thoughts that might inform how the rest of the paper flows. I’m planning on talking about Fortnight primarily in the rest of the paper, although I’ll also talk a bit about the SKYPE-powered rehearsal process I’ve been involved in with Tiffany Mills Company.
‘These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.’
(Turkle, 2011: 20)
In 1979 the Bell Companies came out with an advertising campaign that featured the feel-good tag line of ‘reach out and touch someone’ to promote their long-distance telephone service. In the ads, happy families camping or eating dinner ‘reach out’ and ‘touch’ family members who are not able to be with them by phoning them. Gauzy images of children speaking to grandparents, mothers speaking to fathers and smiling teenagers speaking to their friends portray the merits of long-distance telephony as harbingers of a more connected age of always available intimate encounters. The advertising campaigns promised that technology (in this case communication technology) would bring people together and create a better sense of closeness amongst families. It is telling that in most of the television commercials for this campaign the image of a phone is not seen until the end of the ad and even then it is not shown in any particular context. The phone, in these ads, are overshadowed by the smiling images of people ‘reaching out and touching’ each other, as it were.
Fast forward thirty-two years and major communications companies are still promising to make our lives more satisfying by bringing people closer together via the magic of technology. CISCO, the telecommunications giant, released a series of advertisements using the slogan ‘The Human Network’ to promote their range of products. These ads are filled with smiling couples, a woman giving birth while her family watches on a video link, a grandmother joining a birthday party for her grandchild remotely, and other scenes of intimate experiences made digital (or perhaps, more accurately, digital experiences wearing the guise of intimacy). The ads end by encouraging us to be the ‘human network’, a suggestion that implies that we are becoming more and more part of a society of convergence where the bounds between the human and the machine are blurred.
The notion of ‘the human network’ is clearly an evolution of the Bell Companies’ earlier entreaty; the ad does not specifically mention technology, although it features heavily in its imagery. Instead, the ad focuses on the intimate connections that these technologies might make possible. I would like to suggest that the notion of possibility or potential is a useful way of thinking about the changing landscape of intimate encounters proliferating in the sea of technological advances of the current social-networking era. I believe that the ‘always on’ and ‘portable’ mobile Internet, the proliferation of high speed internet connectivity, and the mix of social networks and augmented reality experiences offer us, as artists and as humans, the possibility of finding new ways of experiencing notions of embodiment – but they do not implicitly create more intimate encounters or even more opportunities for intimacy. The question is, do they, as the Bell Companies promised, bring us closer together?
In an online debate called ‘Reasonable People Disagree About Connectivity’ between the Dalton Conley, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at NYU and his wife, artist and director of NYUs xDesign Environmental Health Centre Natalie Jeremijenko, we see two opposing views about whether technology is bringing us closer together or eroding our private space. Dean Dalton Conley says:
The more that we’re on stage (posting on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise broadcasting our daily states and moods), the less of a backstage there is. The boundary between public and private is increasingly blurred. I think of intimacy as selectively granting passes to your personal backstage, where you let certain people see your grumpy side, or get the update on how you’re feeling at 3:00 in the afternoon. But if you’re using social media as a soapbox to post one-to-all, then there’s no backstage anymore.
(Conley and Jeremijenko, 2010)
Conley’s impression that communicating through social networks, which are inherently one-to-many platforms for expressing ideas, emotions or locations, is somehow eroding the notion of a private, ‘backstage’ touches on a growing trend, observed by Sherry Turkle (2011) in her studies with teens that suggests we feel more anxiety and isolation the more we distribute ourselves. In her words, ‘as we distribute ourselves, we abandon ourselves’. Turkle also suggests that although the current proliferation of communication technologies is making us feel more anxious and busy, ‘the solution will be another technology that will organize, amuse and relax us.’ In Turkle’s view, then, we see a solution being proposed by the very thing that caused the problem to begin with.
Artist Natalie Jerimejenko, however, suggests that we simply need to learn to take agency or control over how we behave with these new technologies. She says:
We can use technology to connect with one another or to disconnect. The question becomes: To what extent do we exercise that agency? And why don’t we feel more in control of it? My position is that we have more agency than we often exercise.
(Conley and Jeremijenko, 2010)
Jeremikenko is not suggesting that the pervasiveness of these technologies does not exist; she just sees them as another set of configurable elements in our daily lives that require processing. The feeling of being out of control may be a side-effect of the always-on Internet environment that we live in. Jeremijenko’s position seems to suggest that we merely need to make the decision to turn off. I wonder whether it is as simple as turning off. Are we, possibly, becoming more like addicts: aware of the danger of getting swallowed by the non-stop mediaverse, yet still consuming it against all caution?
The difference in thinking between Conley/Turkle versus Jeremijenko frames a landscape of questions that ask whether the current wave of technologies are just another set of tools for us to engage with at our discretion, or if they are actually altering the way we think, behave, educate ourselves, conceive of space and intimacy, and collaborate. I want you to keep these perspectives in mind while we look at a few projects that fall into the realm of emerging digital experiences. In looking at these projects, hopefully we might get a better sense of what the impact of these technologies might be and what the potential is that they might offer artists, thinkers and users of digital communication technologies.
 The Bell Companies are now called AT&T.