Our digital senses

In some of Adam Greenfield’s backpages “Whatever happened to serendipity?” he recounts how he used to scrounge for punk rock records and how the difficulty and uncertainty of the experience was part of what made it worthwhile:

But at the risk of sounding like an old man, this ritual – make no mistake, that’s what it was – invested the purchase with meaning and value for me, and I despair at a world that doesn’t at least offer the possibility of similar adventures to its inhabitants.

This resounds simply with the fact that things that are worth doing are oftentimes difficult to do or to learn and things that are worth having are the ones you invested effort in getting.

Just to narrow this down to music, 99% of the music I listen to has no meaning whatsoever to me. This has no bearing on the quality of contemporary music, which I think is actually quite high. Only a couple of albums and artists have managed to strike a chord with me that makes their music merit a repeat listen.

This may be different for others but the real investment of Fl. 45,– or so back then was quite significant, distribution channels were few and the diversity they offered near zero1, you got your recommendations either from mass media or from word of mouth2. The experience was radically different.

Yes, something has been lost in the transition but the abundance we have gained in return makes it more than worthwhile for me.

But the piece is about the loss of serendipity and shortly after he writes:

Yes, I suppose you could always switch the thing off, leave it behind, deliberately “forget” it. But when you’ve lived your entire life through the intercession of a mobile and benevolent Delphi, is that realistically an option? I suppose we’ll find out.

Having spent two and a half weeks in the United States most of which in and around San Francisco. I can testify that it is indeed not an option.

San Francisco is so well mapped within most online services that the experience you have there using the internet is unparalleled. Most services originate there which results in San Francisco being completely mapped in Google Maps, well covered in Yelp and there are ample Twinkling Twitter users in the proximity.

Unfortunately for a visiting European like myself it is prohibitively expensive to use roaming data34, meaning that most of the time my iPhone was a multimedia brick. Being disconnected like this, made me acutely aware of how reliant I have become on the real and virtual compass my iPhone provides. Walking around without a continuous stream of data coming in on the iPhone felt as if a sense was missing.

What is a sense other than a mapping of external information to a part of your brain5? The services on my iPhone provide me with a sense of presence and sense of direction within my spheres of contacts. My brain is conditioned to receive regular updates to this sense and withholding those updates used to be called something like “withdrawal from information addiction” but since this is a sense we’re talking about, I think “sensory deprivation” may be better suited. Without this sixth sense so much of your peripheral ‘vision’ is cut off that you feel like you are wandering around half blind.

  1. Still is. I couldn’t get a physical copy of a Camille album anywhere in Delft.
  2. Anybody still read Oor?
  3. €5 per Mb consumed.
  4. Or roaming anything actually. While I was waiting for the BART, I had a brief phonecall with a friend who wasn’t aware of me being stateside. This could have been a lot of fun, if it wasn’t so damn expensive.
  5. This article in Wired about how to add senses to your perception.

One thought on “Our digital senses”

  1. It is probably a very meak comparison, but the introduction of new forms of information distribution always has the ‘addictive’ effect. In the time before mobile devices, it was not unusual for an individual to have memorised ten, and sometimes tens of telephone numbers for personal use. This changed radically when mobiles became a common appearance. Owning a mobile seemed to immediately clear the memory of the user of any present numbers ;).

    By the way, actual sensory deprevation techniques, such as float tanks, are often used as an extreme method to become relaxed or a sort of ‘quick vacation’.

Leave a Reply