My life sans cellphone was hardly different from my life when I do have it. I don’t use my phone very much. The only people who ever actually *call* me are my parents and my sister (and spam callers), and even they only do so once every few weeks. They generally don’t expect me to pick up, as they know sometimes my phone runs out of battery and I forget/don’t bother to charge it for days at a time. Important information is usually relayed by email, which I can’t check on my phone. In fact, I have a feeling that the reason I am not very invested in my phone is mostly because it doesn’t do very much—it isn’t a smartphone and it can’t go on the internet. I do use it to text people, but most texts are logistical and never particularly fun or important. During the two days without my phone, I received a grand total of 1 text—it was my sister asking me what I wanted for Christmas. I hope she still buys me something, even though I did not reply within 30 seconds as seems to be the expectations with text messages. Most of my social life at Bard happens face to face, as my routine schedule and living situation means I see most of friends face-to-face on a near daily basis. I probably would have run into some communication issues if I was without a phone for more than two days, as I didn’t bother to let anyone know I wouldn’t have it. Two days, especially during finals, goes by very quickly. Something I did notice was that if I heard a phone vibrate somewhere, I knew it wasn’t mine and wouldn’t have to check it. Overall, I guess there are a few possible explanations for why my phone is not as important to me as it is to most of my friends and peers:
EVERYONE else has way more friends/is inherently more social than me, and the only thing this post is demonstrating is that I am actually an anti-social loser (I sure HOPE this isn’t true, but one can’t ignore the possibility)
My phone is a dumbphone and isn’t very fun to play with
Instead of using a phone for compulsive activities like checking email/facebook/chatting/whatever, I use a desktop or laptop computer
I’ve set a precedent with people I know that my phone is never the best way to contact me
I do wonder what my life would be like if I had a smartphone, but from what I see there aren’t that many benefits I’m missing. I assume there will come a point where having a smartphone will be required to be a functional member of society (or it will be the only kind of phone you can even buy), at which point I will likely switch over.
I am very much computer-oriented, so a more interesting life experiment might be to go completely without a personal computer (or perhaps the internet) for a while.
There are a number of concepts worth addressing in Tara McPherson’s analysis of how we interact with the World Wide Web, but for the sake of meaningful distillation I think it is most useful to look in depth at the three different “sensations” she describes while considering how they may fit into our own modern online experiences. These three sensations, in McPherson’s own words, are “volitional mobility, the scan-and-search, and transformation.” (NMOM 200). Although McPherson elaborates on these three modalities in that order, I will instead be working from the back of the list to the front, as I found “volitional mobility” to be the most interesting concept of the three (and despite an awareness of the general blogging/journalistic heuristic of “put the most important stuff first”, can’t help but adhere to the grade-school show-and-tell technique of “save the best for last”). Anyway:
The most obvious proliferation of the sensation of “transformation” would probably be the commonplace practice of allowing and encouraging user customization and personalization of their online environments, whether these be the environments the users themselves are interacting with on their own (Google Homepages, Facebook Newsfeed display options, Firefox Themes, etc.) or the environments they customize meant for the eyes of other people (Social networking profiles, blogs, awesome handcoded HTML homepages). I’m hesitant to spend too many words on this particular topic as I feel as though it is already an overbeaten and very dead horse, but I think it is nevertheless important to recognize how much of the transformative power that is allowed us by the web is designed to function only within well-defined (and often corporate) frameworks. Similar to McPherson’s indication that our choice of movement through cyberspace is illusory, our ability to digitally transform ourselves and our spaces on the internet may also “weld transformation to consumption,” (NMOM 205) as she quotes from Susan Willis. If we can only customize in pre-defined ways, where exactly does the “custom” part come in?
Even the piece of the web that allows for (arguably) the most deep customization—the code behind the pages—still finds itself under the reign of the World Wide Web Consortium. W3C, as it is called, is an organization dedicated to standardizing the internet by spreading their own ideas of good coding and design practices, creating a quasi-technocratic measuring stick against which budding web developers are encouraged to measure themselves. Funnily enough, the most in-depth documentation of HTML and similar code is from the W3C themselves, meaning those who set out to learn to code websites are at the same time being taught external standards which, though admittedly practical, are another way of limiting personalized transformation (I will put marquees all over my webpage and there is nothing you can do to stop me!).
(click to enlarge)
Past the transformation of online spaces, I also got to thinking about the transformation of online content. Perhaps a good example would be Instagram filters, with which aspiring iPhone photographers can make their school dining hall lunches look subtly artsy and personal by applying a whole range of pre-defined photo filters. With gems such as “Toaster,” “Walden,” and “1977,” everyone and their mother can transform ordinary selfies into even more formulaic filtered squares.
McPherson has this to say about scan-and-search: “The Web’s chunking is spatial as much as temporal…The scan-and-search is about a fear of missing the next experience or the next piece of data…this fear of missing in the Web propels us elsewhere, on to the next chunk,” (NMOM 204). She contrasts it to how the structure of a television would glue us to one channel in order not miss anything, while the web makes us want to keep moving quickly in order to do the same. I think this hints most strongly at the potential effects web browsing has had on our attention spans (hardly the best article, but you get my point). We can’t even stay on one page long enough to finish reading it.
At least in my own experience, it becomes all too easy to bounce from page to page in quick succession, constantly assuming you’re missing some new update on one of your communicative networks. Who else has closed Facebook to check their email just to again open Facebook 30 seconds later, neither of the two having seen an update? Worse yet, who has closed a website entirely, found themselves in an amnesic and directionless limbo, and opened the exact same website again?
Furthermore, I also wonder if in the context of our modern internet, the concept of “scan-and-search” may lend itself to a modification (a transformation, if you will). I propose “scan-scroll-and-search,” as I think scrolling has become an integral part of how we interface with the web in both a spatial and temporal way. Just has we jump from page to page to page, we also scroll infinitely down down down, looking for something we may have missed. You might say that all are ways of looking for the next “hit,” as apparently internet use basically works on our brain like a drug.
Says McPherson: “The Web’s forms and metadiscourses thus generate a circuit of meaning not only from a sense of immediacy but through yoking this presentness to a feeling of choice, structuring a mobilized liveness which we come to feel we invoke and impact, in the instant, in the click, reload. I call this sensation volitional mobility,” (NMOM 202). But how much choice is actually involved in our movement through cyberspace?
I’ve already touched on how we move from site to site quickly and almost unconsciously. I would argue that the tendency for our (or at least my) online movements to follow the same routine patterns in every session of use points to a more psychological constraint on our volitional mobility. I often think I am choosing what sites to visit, but much of my internet use is redundant and repetitive. The variety of sites I visit during the typical web session is small, and yet I feel compelled to visit them as there is always new content in real-time. In the same way that television could keep us glued to one channel, the web can keep us cycling through (or constantly scanning and searching) a small set of websites—a sensation made easier by our browsers’ abilities to offer up site suggestions based on what we visit most. When was the last time you actually explored the internet?
Also interesting is McPherson’s mention of both “the click” and “reload.” Modern social media has in some areas done away with the need to click or reload to view the newest updates—once again, the infinite scrolling found on social media feeds (see Facebook, Tumblr) rears its head. At least on Facebook, now we don’t even always need to act to retrieve new, up to date content as it pops up automatically. Is this a move toward a more passive engagement with the web?
Another fascinating point is raised by McPherson in her discussion of Neo-Fordism, where she mentions how search engines “promote the illusion that one is actively surfing the Web…You might say that these databases structure volitional mobility to mask their own algorithmic structure, giving users the sense of control and movement through cyberspace…you remain within a contained database, usually cataloguing less than thirty to forty percent of the Web as a whole…” (NMOM 206). What happens when our primary interface for finding things on the internet has a commercial agenda? Even more intriguing, what about the huge amount of the world wide web that cannot be indexed by search engines—the Deep Web? Maybe the fact that there are websites that exist outside of the view of search engines like Google actually adds to our volitional mobility because they require an extra degree of intention to access. Many of these sites require a special anonymous browser to view, as they involve illegal activity such as illicit drugs and child pornography. I’m torn as to whether the absence of these sites from our normal web experience means that our volitional mobility is compromised further, or actually increased in the cases where Deep Web sites can be accessed in some other way (effectively circumventing the limits of search engines and normal browsers as an interface). What do you think?
We may also consider how modern graphic/web design is all about driving the user’s eyes to what elements should be seen, which one could argue is a way to wrest control from the user and essentially channel their volition. McPherson does get at this, but I would be interested in exploring how the spatial configuration of individual web pages has changed in last 11 years to further implement this goal.
There are so many other things in McPherson’s essay I wish I could address, but my response is already stupidly long (#overexcited). Where do modern internet television services like Netflix and Hulu fit into McPherson’s analysis of the differences between TV and the web, and are they a continuation of services like Pseudo (which was actually performance art, apparently)? How do functions like “browser tabs” and “tab grouping” affect the way we browse? What should we think when our internet activities and potential creative efforts make money for other people?
Sorry for the lengthy post. What are your thoughts?