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Posted by on Sep 22, 2010

Connectedness: A Utopian post of view

Rather than bemoan the distractions, permutations, endless ambiguity, even the thinly veiled malaise that can creep over one invested deeply in their own manifestation of digital culture, I come to you tonight with a return to digital culture as I know it. An opportunity for connections when none exist in the physical realm. To do this, however, I am left with the narrative of the modern world, endless motion. This endless motion comes in the form of business travel, a facet of my existence that ebbs and flows with the seasons, the capitalist cycles that we are all a part of to some degree.

My narrative is Paris and its semi-states of detachedness and attachedness, of anxiety (of travel in general) and the rejuvenation that only foreign travel can bring. It is like being an infant and taking endless delight in the simplest of things, like taking the metro, ordering a beer in a cafe, whiling away the time in the park. The digital equivalent of foreignness has been documented well before, but often with a tinge of dystopian melancholy. It is threatening because it is different, foreign. But let us embrace the digital equivalent of l’estranger, or viewing foreignness as a sublime experience. We wander through social worlds, drift through a myriad of connections, messages, a behemoth bulletin board that endlessly streams information that we must discern, to make the conscious decision to invest in to convert it to energy or information. We are awash in it, this stock ticker of our digital lives.

I would be lost without it. Literally.

In this four days in Paris, I have lived in at least four worlds. One, the conference itself. Botanists, biodiversity types, bioinfomatics types, taxonomists, the whole information substructure. I am engulfed in it and letting it inform the future of my projects. That is explicitly what I am here for. However, I have met several people with whom I have only had online relationships with for years. The digital and the corporeal collide. I feel connected.

The second community is work in New York, Princeton. Never ceasing, never stopping, endlessly slouching forward. It demands my attention in the off hours the conference doesn’t consume. I am beholden to it. I have a Skype call with work, I conduct a webinar, I do it all from my hotel bed. I feel connected (not necessarily a great thing in this instance).

The third is Edinburgh. I willingly connected, read, reread, embrace ideas, juggle with disintermediation, challenge a thousand channels to resonate under one voice. My fellow students are all over, but we are bound by a code of intellectual pursuits, of a collaborative spirit. I feel connected.

The fourth, my social online self. I still bounce between Twitter, Facebook, my personal blog, Google Reader, Buzz. I maintain these connections because they maintain me. I feel connected here as well.

Physically, I am in Paris, disconnected (in a good way). France has just gone on strike, I am here at least another day, alone. L’estranger, but not a stranger. Not with Skype to talk to my wife, Facebook to commiserate with friends, Edinburgh to pursue my education, and work to pay the bills. This is a digital culture to me, one that bleeds endlessly into this hectic, mobile, entirely decentralized corporeal existence. I feel grounded online; out here, it is a free for all!

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5 Comments

  1. Some of this travel log reminds me in a way of the ‘Uncanny’ rhetoric, and the notion of useful uncertainty. I have been reading the PewInternet study for Digital Futures, and a particular quote comes to mind from Cascio (p7), ‘fluid intelligence – the ability to find meaning in confusion’. (Also reminiscent of some recent tweets on fluidity). Indeed ‘foreignness should be a sublime experience’.

    You really provide excellent examples of the boundary destabilizations exacted by technology (Hand 2008). Distance is negated, and all becomes proximal. It is nice to read an account of this denial of physical distance – whilst actually travelling. Connection doesn’t mean that we will all suddenly stop journeying into physical space. Your ‘utopic post of view’ seems to be one of technological enhancement and augmentation, rather than the idea of a shadowy machine locking our doors…A refreshing post Michael!

    • Thanks for articulating the uncanny rhetoric there, Jeremy. I was struggling to find the term. Most certainly it is useful uncertainty, a temporary degradation of skills for the sake of learning, of adjusting a schema to make it more expansive. Technology as an enhancer, not as the protagonist of a personal narrative.

      Thanks for bringing to bear Hand here as his work applies here. Distance is indeed negated, all is proximal, and dare I say it, all is even (hyper)local. Paris, despite its foreignness, is familiar and that familiarity stems from both previously attained knowledge about the place and technological capabilities of augmented reality. The augmented reality here is that without this laptop, Skype, Twitter, Google Maps, etc, as well as my iPod’s Lonely Planet application, I would be lost without a schematic underpinning to even gauge next steps. With these devices, I can gapfill my information needs, evaluate, adjust, all in real time.

      While I cannot deny the shadowy/dystopian aspects of technology, I tend to lean towards technology as an enhancer, an augmentation, especially at the mobile level. When I am alone in my apartment staring into the great abyss of the digital vastness, it can be consuming, even dark. When I am mobile, on the move, sitting at a cafe with the sun on my face and looking for lunch suggestions on my laptop, it is liberating.

  2. Yes, I guess that I meant the ‘uncanny-as-a-good-thing-in-education’ rhetoric (if that does indeed exist)…although there is maybe something uncanny, in the Freudian sense, about travel – culturally things seems similar, perhaps in terms of fashion or technology, but there is an inexplicable strangeness, a difference you cannot determine. I guess it would have really been uncanny for you if you had Parisian ancestors…or if while you were sitting in a cafe, you suddenly noticed your reflection in a window and thought for a moment that you were French…and then realised that you weren’t…;)

    • Interesting observation about the uncanniness of foreignness, Jeremy. It is a sense of drifting through with vaguely familiar items serving as schematic landmarks that the mind latches onto, only to realize they are slightly different, slightly askew. I suppose foreign travel is a good analogy for online learning at times. Familiar backdrops, slightly adrift sense of place, new sense of utility and purpose.

      I love the analogy of seeing someone who looked liked me in a foreign country, only to realize that it wasn’t true. Or as you said, to think that I was French only to see that as false as well. I suspect there is some genetic underpinning to these moments of bright, but ultimately flawed, recognition in places where we are the other. We recognize something familiar, but are not sure as to what.

  3. Ontological strangeness, as a core, seems to me a condition that begins to enter this thread. First, though, I would like to read to Jeremy’s observation on the uncanny . . . off to find it.

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