Reclaiming public space from technology?

Usually, were I to disclose my most eminent concern with the receding and now rare resource that is “public space” in our times, I would mention the Occupy movement and Judith Butler’s brilliantly articulated piece about bodies and space or virtually all of Naomi Klein’s cunning critiques. That is –  disputing and necessarily reclaiming the “public” (of and for a collective purpose or good) from the “private” (or the monopolistic, corporatist, and  insatiable privatization of everything). And furthermore, reclaiming both material and abstract spheres for public discourse that would in turn clarify a vision for society and government – what should be private and what should be public.

But for the sake of diversifying my rants while commenting on the issue of “public space” (or what’s left of it), I’d like to take a different route. I want to talk about  how our relationship with technology has led to the sliding of boundaries between that ever-problematic-but-still-useful public/private binary. How it has effected our very ability to communicate, listen, discuss, and preserve unisolated communities. For a related discussion, check out this fantastic Ted Talk by Sherry Turkle. In short, while I admire and cherish our technological innovations, it seems that the more convulated, less-discussed effects of our new gadget dependency have warped how we perceive and present ourselves – and have, in turn, encroached on public space.

A few years ago, it was deemed exceptionally rude to have a cell phone out (above or underneath the table) during family dinners at my house. Even the subtle, single-pulse vibration from somebody’s pocket would have dad snarling. Dinner, among other family rituals that characterize the scattering of holidays or celebrations, was a space where personal gadgets were to be put aside in order to safeguard the sanctity of verbal, corporeal engagement with siblings and parent(s). For it is within these “private” spaces that we learn how to be social – that we first learn how to interact in the “public”. Jane Juffer would say much the same, while affirming that alternative family structures are equally adept for cultivating socially smart beings. During family dinners, the technologies connecting us to our various online or friend communities were banned. And for good reason. Shouldn’t we sometimes maintain certain, appropriate “spaces” for these communities, instead of allowing them to infiltrate every second of our lives and thus depreciating interpersonal contact? Now, not only do my parents each wield an iPhone, but they have gradually become conspicuously lax on this former rule – to the extent that it is rarely enforced anymore. Anybody who isn’t on a phone or a computer during gatherings may often be watching television. You’ll find whole groups of friends who get together to hang out but are simultaneously on their phones, isolating themselves, not interacting.

As the capacity of most phones to relentlessly connect us to our social media and other online guilty-pleasures has been magnified, it seems that interpersonal communication has dwindled. (Exception: pubs, college campuses). We can’t seem to function without this technological appendage, so attached as we (or newer generations) have become psychologically – I’ve even accrued a weird sensation of the “phantom” ring tone or vibration that drives me to incessantly check my phone. It’s crazy. And public discourse depends on people who know how to talk to each other, and on maintaining public spaces “in which citizens demonstrate respect for their community by not inflicting their banal bedroom lives on it,” as Jonathan Franzen wrote when he lamented the rampant cellular culture. And that’s exactly the point I’d like to amplify in this post. He continues:

Back in 1998, not long after I’d quit cigarettes, I would sit on the subway and watch other riders nervously folding and unfolding phones, or nibbling on the teatlike antennae that all the phones then had, or just quietly clutching their devices like a mother’s hand, and I would feel something close to sorry for them. It still seemed to me an open question how far the trend would go: whether New York truly wanted to become a city of phone addicts sleepwalking down the sidewalks in icky little clouds of private life, or whether the notion of a more restrained public self might somehow prevail.

All that said, if you find yourself constantly on your cell phone/iPhone (especially when you’re around other people), you’re being the perfect neoliberal selfish (er, rationally self-interested) subject. Your best and indispensable companion is your bloody cell phone. You put the weight of your collective interactions and obligations in the virtual world; the planned and carefully prepared face of who you are on facebook overcomes the spontaneous, improvised everyday person in conversation. Avoiding opportunities for engagement with strangers in public arenas, we transpose and project our private bubbles into those very spheres -as if we’re privatizing them. This sounds harsh, but its a critique I level equally against myself. As Sherry Turkle reminded us, technology is wonderful but we need to clarify what directions we want it to lead us so that our values (e.g. genuine connection) are not compromised. AND in a discussion about values, we will also clarify the relationship between public and private, perhaps again ensuring that dinner tables, workplaces, and lecture halls (to name a few)  are spaces for in-person conversations – cultivating the ability to talk reasonably with one another.

I do not mean to valorize public over private, or needlessly stigmatize one or the other. Rather, I think what we need to remember with our cell phones and our consumption habits is what Erik Reece wrote as the dilemma of our era – “We must choose, first as individuals and then as a collective, to reject selfish individualism for the individuality of noble selfhood”, the former being the narrow pursuit of happiness based on convenience. I certainly don’t want my friendships, relationships, or precious interactions with strangers to disappear because I deem the time I spend browsing websites on my phone more “convenient”.


4 responses to “Reclaiming public space from technology?

  1. Your blog posts never cease to amaze me. Thanks for the awesome insight. Also thanks for making me feel like a child in terms of my blogging ideas (just kidding)

  2. Great post Hannah! I have noticed this continuously around campus ever since I arrived to St. Johns. It’s sad when a freshman, only wanting to expand his/her friend circle within the college space, cannot comfortably communicate with other peers. The Link is a perfect example of where this takes place; people stare at their phones, heads down, so they don’t have to break the awkward silence of sitting with a stranger. The idea of oneness with those around us is constantly diminishing. It is strange though, because the phone companies stress the importance of togetherness, yet playing a game of “Words with Friends” is anything but intimate. It’s a bad habit that will probably be increasingly harder to break, especially as new and innovative technologies come out.

    Thanks again for teaching me so much!

  3. YES! Here’s something you may enjoy Hannah, if you see someone walking with a cell phone in their hand, not paying attention where they are going, simply put your fist straight out from your body so said person walks directly into it, thus punching them self in the face. Useful way to prove your point, but possibly cruel. It is so true how entrenched we have become with our phones. I think it also ties into The Theory Toolbox, in the fact that it says something very definite about our culture and how we were all raised. Phones virtually changed we did everything, from silent dinners with some TV to everyone at the table being plugged into something. P.S. Your my hero

  4. Very interesting! Agreed. It happens a lot on the Link as well. I am guilty of using my phone to avoid interaction with people quite often, confidence thing I think. However, that could be fixed relatively easily if I started to put away the excuses and actually talk to people. Another blurring of public and privative are social networks. By spending copious amounts of time posting about their lives on Facebook for example, people publicize their lives in a priviate isolated way.

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