Disconnecting the Dots
About a year ago, I started riding a fixed-gear bicycle. This is a type of bicycle that has a direct connection between the front and rear gears and the rear wheel, thereby ensuring that the pedals and the rear wheel are working in concert at all times so that the bike is unable to coast. Given the extra work and hazards associated with such a vehicle, I'm often asked why I ride one. What’s the appeal? Well, one of the reasons that fixed-gears are so seductive is the direct connection one has to the distance traveled and the control of the motion. No matter the terrain or conditions, your body is always at work negotiating the ride. You are directly connected to your environment.
Walking to class the other day, I had the option of taking the elevator to class on the seventh floor and then going to the climbing gym to climb afterward. It struck me as odd that the two actions were so out of sync with one another. Getting to a higher floor in one building and the act of climbing up the wall in another were totally disassociated, even though they were essentially the same act.
Rebecca Solnit (2001) addresses this disconnection in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking:
"What exactly is the nature of the transformation in which machines now pump our water but we go to other machines to engage in the act of pumping, not for the sake of our bodies, bodies theoretically liberated by machine technology? Has something been lost when the relationship between our muscles and our world vanishes, when the water is managed by one machine and the muscles by another in two unconnected processes?" (p.263)
We drive cars to the gym to run miles on a treadmill. Inclement weather notwithstanding, why don’t we just run down the street? The activities are disconnected. If our culture is essentially technology-driven —even if this reliance is a “decaying myth, an ideology superimposed on technology,” as Rem Koolhaas contends — then what kind of culture emerges from such disconnections between our physical goals and our technologically enabled activities?
Technology curates culture. As such, the alienation we feel from our technologically mediated “all-at-once-ness” (as McLuhan called it) comes from a disconnection between physical goals and technology’s “help” in easing our workload.
“For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life,” Alice Kahn once quipped, “please press three.” I’m not anti-technology, but I have been trying to grasp what our devices are doing to us, as well as the relationship between technology, culture, and people. Our devices are often divisive.
In his book 2012: The Return of Queztalcoatl, Daniel Pinchbeck (2006) evokes Carl Jung’s idea of the “shadow” of the psyche, saying that a lot of what we’re seeing in the negative aspects and uses of technology is the projection of the shadow that we’ve failed to integrate into our collective psyche. He goes on to say that if this projection is resolved, technology could aid in the transformation of global consciousness, a shift from Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” to Teilhard de Chardin’s “Noosphere,” wherein everyone online merges into one collective consciousness.
That said, there are two types of disconnection at work here: one between ourselves and our environment (e.g., pumping water vs. pumping iron) and one between ourselves and each other (e.g., individual distraction vs. global connection) with technology wedged in between in both cases.
The digital revolution is sparking an altogether different strain of separation. We’re losing something in our latest move from atoms to bits. Something big. Something we’ll miss later.
Choosing the difference is one thing (i.e., preferring to shop online, downloading MP3s, buying a Kindle, etc.). Having it forced upon us is another. With the latest involuntary seismic shifts in media — the disintegration of the CD market and subsequent closing of retail outlets, the shrinking of magazines and nodding off of newspapers — the changes are now coming without choices.
Yes, I realize that we’ve made these choices in an Adam Smith, “invisible hand” kind of way, but one wonders where these changes will leave us. The prediction of the death of print media has been on the books since TCP/IP, but now that it finally has a body count, panic is around every corner.
In his book On Writing (Pocket, 2001), Stephen King urges aspiring writers to turn off their televisions, writing, “Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find that they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life and the quality of your writing." By not owning a TV I can honestly say I get more done without it around (it’s on at my parents’ house whenever anyone is awake). But as Steve Jobs once observed, the two experiences are fundamentally disconnected: We do some things to turn on, and we do others to turn off.
Part of the distinction between types of media is a simple difference between the ways to display certain types of information. Think of an analog gauge versus a digital one. Neither is inherently better than the other. Their value depends on what information you want from them. An analog display is better at showing progress or a difference between values, whereas a digital display is more accurate at a glance. Now think about this difference in the context of storytelling, between a book and a movie. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.
I’m not worried about the newspapers. I haven’t read a newspaper in years. I’m more worried about choice. When Jeff Bezos left Wall Street for Seattle to start Amazon.com, he picked books because when making a decision to purchase a book online and in a store, you can get roughly the same information. That is, you don’t have to try on a book before you buy it. This insight was Bezos’ one bit of genius, but it was also one of the initial ruptures in the latest stage of the evolution of our relationship with our externalized knowledge.
We’ve been externalizing our knowledge since we started speaking and writing on cave walls, but it wasn't until much more recently, as James Carey (1988) pointed out, that the invention of the telegraph established a major watershed. It separated communication (and thereby information) from transportation. It made information a commodity, a resource not tethered to the physical world. The internet only extended and solidified the transition.
There are several trajectories here, but the main thing I want to point out here is just that: the multifaceted influence of technological mediation. Every change has unintended consequences, and we lose something with every gain. These changes are neither good nor bad, but we should be mindful that they’re happening.
Resolving these dangling disconnections is not a one-shot state of being but a part of an ongoing process, one that will play out until the earth no longer supports us, and one that might not end up with all of our minds magically melded into one. Thankfully we have choices. We can take the stairs, run outside, talk to someone new. We can dig in the racks, browse the shelves, and read magazines — as long as they’re around. We can do the opposite of what we would normally do. We can find the balance to corrupt the balance to find the limits. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Proceed.
Carey, J. (1988). Communication as culture. New York: Routledge.
Cringely, R. X. (1996). “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires.” New York: Public Broadcasting System.
King, S. (2001). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Pocket Books.
Koolhaas, R. (1995). S, M, L, XL. New York: Monacelli Press.
Pinchbeck, D. (2007). 2012: The return of Quetzalcoatl. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.
Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York: Penguin.