The ecopyschology of cell phones

Cingular uses a “family tree” metaphor to describe its service

For my digital media class I gave my students a non-digital assignment. I asked them to walk into Rome and get lost. No phones, no maps, no iPods, no books, no pens, no media. The idea was to defamiliarize their digital environment by removing them from it. The other point was to have them observe different aspects of urban design and to pay attention to how specific spaces “afforded” particular interactions.

In a city 3,000 years old, it is a good place to study those spaces that were designed for human scale. For example, the ideal spatial configuration for a piazza is that it should be no larger than the distance that people can recognize each other from. For background material, I assigned the first two chapters of Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, which explores interactivity, embodiment, spatial literacy and pervasive computing.

Students were then required to blog about their experiences. As predicted the responses were mixed. Some were elated and felt they had experienced the city for the first time. Others noticed new details that had alluded them. One even said she smelled the city for the first time. For others the experience made them angry and anxious. What was common for most of them was a sense of loss, loneliness and disconnection.

Most interesting was the belief that they needed to be available for others– that their friends and family would worry about them if they were not tethered to their networks. I found this to be a most curious kind of anxiety, something “new” to our digital environment. As a kid I remember my friends and I taking off for the day with our bicycles and skateboards without worrying about checking in or needing to avail ourselves to those who were not with us.

This pervasive need to be available to others, I’m guessing, is really about affirmation. The idea that someone might need them is necessary to validates their worthiness. In other words, they need the net to mirror back to them a purpose for existing. Sherry Turkle‘s new book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues something along these lines. In her Fast Company interview, she says,

“If you get into these email, Facebook thumbs-up/thumbs-down settings, a paradoxical thing happens: even though you’re alone, you get into this situation where you’re continually looking for your next message, and to have a sense of approval and validation. You’re alone but looking for approval as though you were together–the little red light going off on the BlackBerry to see if you have somebody’s validation. I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook…we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.”

So what does this have to do with ecopsychology? David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World uses phenomenology to explain how the environment makes available to us our consciousness; it affords us possible interactions and thereby co-creates our thoughts. This concurs with the work of Maturana and Varela (see Tree of Knowledge) who argue that awareness is always an emergent aspect of our mind/body coupling with the environment.

The issue is that the electronic net affords a different phenomenology than the one our brains are wired for: 3-D physiological space. Digital Ground argues this is why the project of virtual reality keeps failing: our inner ears cannot reconcile the flying dream imagined by the early depictions of cyberspace in sci-fi film’s and books. Rather than projecting ourselves through the computer screen’s window, computers come to us via their ubiquitous presence in our environment.

Robert Romanyshyn argues in his amazing book, Technology as Symptom and Dream, that when we banished spirits from nature, they became angels. And through technologies like linear perspective we seek to become gods, pushing forward an ongoing project of disembodiment from natural systems. The ecopsychology argument is that disembodiment is how we react to trauma. Unconsciously we mourn the loss of connection with “nature” and to avoid the pain we extend our consciousness into ever “higher” realms, with space flight being the epitome of this desire. de Chardin‘s vision of the noosphere— or what contemporary net Utopians call the global brain– has a similar yearning to transcend the body for some kind of Christ-like uber-consciousness.

Now, I don’t want to over simplify what is really going on with cell phones. It is surely more complicated. For example, the idea that a person is not an isolated, autonomous self, but exists within an embedded network is surely a step toward sustainable awareness. One of our biggest challenges is to disrupt the Enlightenment self so as to promote a greater sense of interconnectivity with the materiality of the physical environment. Additionally, this idea of what is natural and what is not furthers the problem. I don’t think it is productive to say that the extended net of our electronic experience is “unnatural,” but it is certainly different than the ideal of the neolithic tribe living harmoniously with its landscape. Whether we like it or not, we are cyborgs, and it is best that we find some kind of coping mechanism because the digital genie is out of the bottle.

The important thing is for people to learn how to moderate their interaction so as to not amputate those senses that eagerly wish to engage the sights, smells, sound and tastes of the immediate environment. I suspect from tracking the comments of my students that they indeed long for these things, but cannot moderate their usage. They are, to use their own words, addicted. How to solve this problem will certainly be a task of educators. I for one do not have the answers, but ironically enough, through “crowd sourcing” on the net, perhaps we can collectively figure it out together.