Monday, January 24, 2005

Public space

You know how these things go: you innocently post a response to a friend's post and use a phrase, you sorta think about it, and before you know it, the subject seems everywhere. Such is the case with the phrase that is the title of this topic.
This all came to a head yesterday. In the morning, Mrs. Meridian and I listened to an interview with Christine Rosen on her new article in The New Atlantis on TiVos and iPods, which I've linked to and will discuss more fully below. Then later, Mrs. Meridian and I were visiting her parents for Sunday supper, and Mrs. Meridian was recounting an experience that few have NOT had. While at the video-rental store, she overheard a girl on her cellphone talking quite loudly to someone: "He said THAT about me?? . . . I can't believe that . . . Well, I'm just going to call him right now," etc. She did, confronting "him": "Is it true what you said about me?" And so on. My mother-in-law said, "I would have gone up to her and asked, 'Well, what DID he say?'" to which I replied, "She probably would have told you to mind your own business."
I've by no means done any truly deep thinking on the subject of public space (for THAT work, see the articles by Christine Rosen (and the people SHE refers to) that I've linked to here). But it's clear that public space is tricky to negotiate precisely because it is public--everyone has some right to it. What happens with cellphone users, as Rosen points out in another (excellent) article in The New Atlantis, "Our Cell Phones, Ourselves", is that their phone isolates them from that space, removing their attention from the presence and sensibilities of others. The user's needs become paramount, and if those others draw the user's attention to his/her intrusion into their space, THEY are, as often as not, seen as intruding into his/her space. The cellphone allows the concretion of the ego in the user, creating at best a lapse in consideration, at worst out and out violence.
And that's the first point I wish to raise about public space: that recognizing that everyone has a right to it should mean that we all should pay a modicum of attention to who else is occupying it. This means more than just being polite; it should also, I think, mean actively listening to and perhaps even engaging in conversations with others about how they are using that space. I should say that as I write this I have something in mind like the central plaza of a European or Latin American city, but not only in the literally physical sense of a plaza. As visitors to those places who have lingered in a plaza know, more happens than the mere movement of people through it: they meet, they have coffee, they read, they look at people selling art or books or handicrafts, they listen to evangelizers of every brand of religion and politics . . . hmm--sounds a little like the blogosphere, in its better moments, to me. But like any technology, as Thoreau saw happening with railroads, linkage at one level can cause disconnetions at other levels that are, perhaps, more valuable than the ones gained.
This brings me to the second Rosen article, "The Age of Egocasting". Her thesis is a compelling one: that TiVo and iPods indeed give their owners more control over what they watch and listen to than they have ever had before--control, in fact, is at the center of their power to seduce their users. But in the case of TiVo, she argues, people who have it actually end up watching MORE television than they had before. It does not save us TV-watching time; instead, it carves out more time for watching TV that had been dedicated to other pursuits. As for iPods, she contends that sampling has the end effect of isolating us from learning about and being challenged by other music and, more broadly, other art--with so many hundreds of hours on those little chips, why listen to anything else . . . especially something you might not like?
Culture--human interaction, in other words--suffers in a world whose machines permit the individual to plug him/herself in and be immersed in sound and image solely of his/her own selection. It's rather like listening to an "Oldies" station or a "Classic Rock" station: the songs on the playlists, removed from their contexts, become, for me, harder to listen to, less pleasing to listen to, if you pretty much know that the station WILL play "Mony, Mony" that day. So too with such technologies. If you're the one programming your iPod, where will surprise occur? When will you hear or see something you hadn't heard or seen before?
Technology is the elimination of surprise. But it can also be a tool to facilitate it. And that occurs, I think, so long as we don't lose our sense of the importance of public space.

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Anonymous said...

I think your comparison of technology-driven cultural consumerism to the phenomenon of the 'Oldies' radio station is spot on, because the dominance of the 'nostalgia industry' is entirely symptomatic of the condition of 21st-century culture. There's no longer enough room for culture to do anything other than exist and be consumed. That fantasy space where memories have room to grow and develop has shrunk to minuscule proportions.

Nostalgia - incidentally, not a positive condition but an affliction to the ancient Greeks (something like homesickness)- used to mean a shared memory, a way of connecting with your past through conversation with others who share the same cultural memories. The advent of the internet has changed all that: how can nostalgia survive when the past (one's own past) is entirely demystified? Google has made conversation redundant: nothing need remain a dim and distant memory when it's easily verifiable. Childhood memories retain a special significance of course, but not when those memories are in the 'public domain' as it were: memories of books read, TV show watched, games played. All can be googled in a matter of seconds; more than that, it's entirely likely that you'll find fansites and entire web communities committed to the purpose of tarnishing your cherished childhood memories.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be...


jennifer said...

Hi John,
I couldn't email you for some reason (the response said you didn't like about technology killing conversation :)!)
Anyhow, this is my response to your response. First though I wanted to respond to what Raminagrobis wrote here:
"I think your comparison of technology-driven cultural consumerism to the phenomenon of the 'Oldies' radio station is spot on, because the dominance of the 'nostalgia industry' is entirely symptomatic of the condition of 21st-century culture. There's no longer enough room for culture to do anything other than exist and be consumed. That fantasy space where memories have room to grow and develop has shrunk to minuscule proportions."

This sounds to me like mental muscular atrophy. I disagree though that technology has killed nostalgia. Have either of you read either Walter Benjamin's essay "The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" or Adorno/Horkheimer's "The Culture industry"? I think technology itself isn't to blame but the sterility of mass reproduction. The flipside of this though is that because so much censorship stifles true dialogue on critical issues the internet is a space in which such conversations and beautiful intellectual exchanges can occur. I'm not sure how safe that is or for how long but I for one am I quite happy to have it.
I know this is tangental to your original topic John but I felt it worth adding anyway.

My response to your response from my blog:
My "argument" isn't really mine. It is questioning the macrocosmic shift necessary to find that common ground you speak of. So when I write about the "futility" of the moral argument, I really mean exactly that. BECAUSE we each alone are more secure in our version of morality than we are of those whose views are different than ours (foreign, contested, etc) than to try to use persuasive speech in that context becomes more of an assault and less an open and equal playing field. This is why I wrote that I wished for a space that this could occur. I think we need to move beyond our wishing to bring each other to "our side" and recognize that in declaring sides we're already defeating the inclusivity necessary to listen and be heard.
So words become arrows either losing momentum in the air, falling short of the desired target or the become lodged in the other's person...inflammatory and infectuous. I'm really tired of the use of word as weapon in the public and private sphere. I'm equally tired of the assaultive silences. The whole issue of "penetration" pertains more and less to the idea of the overarching metaphor of a healing space. Space as woman. What will she be filled with? What healing can she bring forth? See, in American politics (international politics/realpolitik etc) there is the overarching metaphor of aggression, penetration, subjugation and conquering. Both sides use rape metaphors to excuse their own rape. Both sides lay blame cloaked in metaphors of submission, softness and vulnerability. Tenderness isn't desirable. Toughness is. Inclusivity isn't on the agenda. Arm-twisting bullying rhetoric is the flavor for the day. BOTH sides do this. Listen to activists who are fighting war using the most angry, hostile speech. Does this get the chickenhawks to stop? No.
The cleverness of the argument is lost on them. They cloak themselves in the coat of arms of their chosen "morality" and no arrows can penetrate them. No logic can break through their defenses. This is really the heart of what I was trying to argue and analyze in my sudefed head way. Does this make better sense?

I look forward to reading your further posts on private/public space. peace!

jennifer said...

One last thing, as if I hadn't taken up enough space with my last post. My "beef" with Google isn't its making conversation or nostalgia redundant but of the monopoly certain companies such as google can have over "free space."
I despise the multiple monopolies with their near-absolute and ever intrusive power over my ability to use a computer (and the internet) and yet, I have to participate in technological prostitution of the latest greatest thing or else I can't do what I want to do. Sure, I could go Mac (and would love to believe me) but even that isn't resistance enough to the mass market monopoly pimp. Example: Our University has had technical difficulty after technical difficulty with the main internet discussion board ("Blackboard") and our technology in general. We found out later that the only systems that would work with the "new and improved" system was Macintosh. Those of us who were still stuck using Microsoft were basically screwed for weeks, plagued with viruses which convienently enough required more "patented protected" products to prevent viruses ("firewalls" to remove a "spyware" infection)...

Nostalgia in the face of technology, for me, is the desire to live free of the tyranny of the minority and their habitual love of selling you what they think you want, not what you need or really even want at all. peace!

jennifer said...

Sorry, I forgot one thing I wanted to add about techonology subsuming the individual/culture/communication etc.

Read this:

Product Description:
Machine-readable identity cards are issued to prisoners, workers, and schoolchildren around the world. Tiny ID chips track every car, shirt, and razor blade purchased from every corporate manufacturer in America. Chips track--and control--humans and other animals. Exoskeleton armor makes soldiers invincible; mind-altering drugs make them incapable of remorse. Scientists design swarms of nanoparticles as weapons to target specific ethnic groups. Governments and multinational corporations gather gigabytes of information on every citizen’s race, family life, credit record, telephone conversations, employment history, buying preferences, favorite TV shows.

Welcome to Western civilization, 2004.

In their new collaboration for the "Politics of the Living" series, Derrick Jensen and George Draffan reveal the modern culture of the machine, where corporate might makes technology right, government money feeds the greed for mad science, and absolute surveillance leads to absolute control--and corruption. Through meticulous research and fiercely personal narrative, Jensen and Draffan move beyond journalism and exposé to question our civilization’s very mode of existence. "Welcome to the Machine" defies our willingness to submit to the institutions and technologies built to rob us of all that makes us human--our connection to the land, our kinship with one another, our place in the living world.

Welcome to the Machine is part of the "Politics of the Living" series, a collection of hard-hitting works by major writers exposing the global governmental and corporate assault on life

(I really want this book and will eventually get it. We're working on seeing about bringing him to our campus to speak. This book looks amazing and he is simply one hell of a writer. You might add this to your collection of "to-reads" or "what i am reading now." peace!