What is the globe?

What is the globe?

With its sparse oases and isles now fully mapped, its arid deserts and snowy peaks mastered by commercial flight, its vast blue oceans crisscrossed with submarine communication cables, and all of it constantly surveyed by satellites, it seems impossible to talk about human civilisation today without first talking about the planet as a whole on which we make our home; the globe.

I touched on this in my last post. Be it through ‘globalisation’, the ‘world stage’, the ‘world wide web’, the ‘global village’, ‘global warming’, the ‘GFC’, the ‘UN’, the ‘WHO’, the ‘GPS’, ‘world politics’, ‘world peace’ or ‘saving the planet’, the ‘globe’ has become the first fact of modern life, the rubric under which our day to day lives are processed and make sense.

We hear an awful lot about it, but what actually is this elusive ‘globe’? What do we really mean by that word? It’s possible to start ruling out certain possibilities. For instance, the ‘globe’ is definitely not Earth. When people talk about the ‘world’ or the ‘globe’ in the way they so often do, it’s clear they’re not talking solely and scientifically about a lonesome third rock from the sun in an obscure corner of the universe. They’re talking about something else.

Specifically, it has to do with life, biology, the defining characteristic of our otherwise unnoteworthy planet. To some extent it includes all plant and animal life, but its scope is primarily focused on a much narrower phenomenon which smells… slightly anthropocentric.

Let’s cut to the chase. The globe is all about us. Humans.

What is the globe?

But even this doesn’t get to the bottom of it. When we talk about the ‘globe’ we’re not just talking about any other species or a collection of individuals living their own lives in isolation from one another. We’re not even talking about every single human being on this planet. Instead, what we’re talking about is a network of ideas about people, and the interactions and relationships between those people. From families, friends and neighbourhoods to social networks, markets, ethnicities and nations; we’re talking about an impersonal vision of the aggregate of all interpersonal relationships, both real and imagined, and attempting to explain them as a functioning whole.

Because of this, the ‘globe’ is looking more and more like an idea which is impossible to know anything concrete about. Put simply, the ‘globe’ is a metaphor for humanity, an abstract notion very loosely defined, perhaps more symbolic or poetic than actual, and not nearly as inclusive or all-encompassing as we’d like to imagine (more often than not it’s expressed from a decidedly Western perspective). We tend to talk about the globe as though it’s a single person, something we’re somehow at once a part of and apart from. But is this the best way to understand humanity today? Is humanity best thought of as a globally conscious entity?

In other words, is it helpful to conceive of humanity as a single, synchronised actor, aware at all times of what it’s doing, where it’s going, as though it’s headed in a direction or toward a coherent objective at all? Or is it better to imagine ourselves as pockets of isolated, unaware, uncoreographed chaos and mess? It’s clear that one conception has more sway over the other in modern cultural discourse, but it’s just as easy to see that both are always there. What does a preference for the former really get us? What is its explanatory power over the latter, and more importantly does it really map onto reality?

These are pretty tough questions, and they’ll take time to dissect fully. But they’re the sorts of big, open-ended questions this blog was set up to explore. With help.

Let’s start small. What does the ‘globe’ mean to you? Be as creative as you want in your answer.

Cheers,

Mark

1LEAVECOMMENT

Is Facebook the way to world peace?

WorldPeaceFacebook

It’s no secret that Facebook is sold to us as the lovechild of globalisation and innovation. It’s heralded across the Western world as a way to bring together businesses and buddies, countries and cultures into a participatory and egalitarian community. Zuckerberg is seen as a modern-day wizard genius extraordinaire, and in many ways Facebook is talked about as though it’s synonymous with the entirety of the Internet itself (as we saw earlier this week when the ‘Internet’ was brought down by an error in Facebook’s Connect code).

But just how much of this is actually true? I mean, maybe we’ve just fallen for Facebook’s clever marketing. Or maybe its marketers were helped along by the fact that Facebook itself fits seamlessly into a preconceived idea we’ve all grown up with, a sort of self-advertising narrative of progress through globalisation. Either way the question stands, just how does Facebook bring the world together?

The picture below was compiled by Facebook engineer Paul Butler way back in 2010, and it fits into this narrative like a final jigsaw piece. Each line represents a relationship between two people – the brighter an area the more concentrated those online relationships. It’s truly breathtaking.

FacebookWorld

Thousands of images just like this one are presented to us daily as a form of documentary reinforcement for the triumph of globalisation, a fact many of us wouldn’t second-guess. But when we take a critical step back from our discourse, you can’t help but notice a very different picture hiding inside this one.

All you have to do is stop looking at the faint blue lines and instead concentrate on the vast empty spaces between them.

Notice specifically the giant black holes in Central and Northern Africa, Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia, China and Oceania. If this image shows the extent of Facebook’s reach, there’s a significant portion of the world which isn’t represented here. And of the relationships Facebook facilitates, the majority of them are remarkably insular, occurring intensely within a country but less so outside its borders and immediate region.

networkconfusion

It’s a peculiar pattern supported by this highly-recommended data visualisation published by Facebook Stories last year. Almost every country you click on, the largest bubbles are of its immediate neighbours, with the sort of exceptions you’d expect (Spain-Latin America, UK-Australia-India etc.). Most of these links are remnants of a pre-Internet age, from things like European colonialism and post-WW2 migration – but as for any new, radical, quirky or novel cross-cultural exchanges, there just isn’t the volume you’d anticipate. This isn’t the profile of a vast, interconnected network –  it’s more like a chain, or a series circuit.

A lot of this is explicable by what media theorist Joseph Straubhaar has called cultural proximity, “the tendency to prefer media products from one’s own culture or the most similar possible culture” (2003, 85). Because of this Straubhaar notes the formation of certain media markets and that:

These markets might more accurately be called cultural-linguistic or geocultural markets rather than regional markets because not all these linked populations, markets, and cultures are geographically contagious.” (2007, 171)

For the most part though, voices like Straubhaar’s haven’t been absorbed by the zeitgeist. Instead, talk and images of how Facebook is the ultimate global village cum democratic network, how we are all connected, how a combination of the Internet and technology will save us all, and so on, can leave us with a compromised image of the actual world around us which systematically under-represents the majority of humanity and overstates the role of the Internet.

MagnificationFacebook

We’re often reminded that Facebook, if it were a country, would have the third largest population on the planet, with something like 1 billion active monthly users. That sounds impressive on paper – until you remember that this means 85.7% of the world’s population is NOT on Facebook.

This isn’t the way it’s talked about though – Facebook is touted as being synonymous with the Internet itself. But looking at these figures, this would be like saying the entire world was Hindu.

What’s more, the minority which is on Facebook isn’t spread evenly across the world. About one in two people in the US use Facebook, giving it the highest number of national users. Brazil comes in second with one in three. India comes in third with almost 63 million users, but this is only 5% of India’s population.You can’t look at the volume of users alone and conclude that Facebook has reached the same level of cultural penetration abroad as it has in the US, now effectively one nation under Facebook – yet you’d be forgiven for thinking that it has.

To see more of how global Facebook users are distributed check it out here.

Internet Users by Percentage of Population

At this point, it’s sobering to remember that the Internet is not as far-reaching as we’d imagine. Only a third of the world is online. It’s weird to think, given how self-propagating it is, for a discursive two-thirds of the world’s population the Internet is largely non-existent. In fact, graphics like the one above compel us to paint a portrait of the Internet which is drastically lopsided.

For example, most of the websites on the Internet are in English (about 57%), but you’d be mistaken to think that 57% of Internet users come from English-speaking countries. I know – that’s just logical, yet this seems to be the prevailing belief. In reality, the number of Internet users in China dwarfs the number of those in the US by more than double. India, Japan and Brazil follow respectively.

Of the top 20 countries sorted by the number of Internet users, only 3 are officially English speaking. (source)

Internet users as percentage of world population

It’s when you see statistics like this that you realise our rhetoric is wrong and talk is cheap. We talk about ‘the West’ and ‘the Third World’, and a divide between the developed/developing world, but in light of honest inquiry these terms can’t help but seem condescending – and more fundamentally – inaccurate.

Undoubtedly Facebook seems all-pervasive and unavoidable. But when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, it turns out that Facebook is used by the minority of the minority of the world, about a third of a third (1 billion users). That’s significant yes, but on equal footing with (if not slightly below) the combined cultural force of Chinese microblogging and social networking platforms QQ (712 million users), Qzone (>400 million, part of the QQ network) and Weibo (>300 million). This is a side of the coin we’re rarely presented with – and if we are, it’s downplayed.

onenationunderfacebook

The closer you look, the more it seems that the Internet is not one unified, globally aware cultural force, but that there are in fact many different Internets separated by cultural proximities that rarely come in contact with one another. The Internet looks very different to many different people. Commentators refer to this phenomenon (although with slightly different connotations) as cyberbalkanisation, or my personal favourite, the splinternet.

There’s a disparity here between reality and what we perceive. And this should be alarming – especially when so much of discourse is weighted toward the antipodal, dreamy-eyed vision of globalisation – because it gives us a false impression of the world around us. It seems to pander the minority, and seems to value their role in shaping global discourse disproportionately. And it compels us to whitewash the globe with a narrative of all-inclusive connectivity which can only ever be understood as progressive, regardless of the truth.

Graphics like Butler’s are elegant but ultimately deceptive, and they tend to oversell the unifying power of Facebook (and more broadly the Internet) in our modern world. As an analogy, Facebook increases the sensor size without increasing the megapixels – we’re given a bigger picture but with no greater resolution.

If anything I hope this post helps us avoid tripping into the pitfall of conflating what occurs on Facebook at a local level with what’s happening on the global level, and encourages a humbler inspection of the true breadth and depth of globalisation.

But what do you think? Does the discourse surrounding Facebook enrich our global consciousness and work toward world peace? Or does it give us a more parochial and pixelated view of the world? 

Looking forward to seeing your thoughts.

Cheers,

Mark

1LEAVECOMMENT

Do you even lift?

A quick detour from my posts on Facebook to look at this endearing short film from 2001 called Lift (thanks to Jono). Each day over a two month period, filmmaker Mark Isaacs would ride a lift in a London apartment block for 10 hours at a time. What you see documented in the film above are his interactions with the building’s residents, and gradually, the reveal of a vertical community most of us overlook, or aren’t around long enough to connect the dots between.

At first people are rightly suspicious, and Isaacs starts noninvasively enough by asking questions like ‘what’s on your mind today?’, ‘what did you dream about last night?’. However this slowly escalates as the character of his questions become much more intimate, such as ‘have you ever been in love?’ and ‘what’s your favourite childhood memory?’. Over time the lift becomes a sort of confessional booth, and Isaacs its ordained priest.

Which is interesting because the lift is typically a space reserved for silence, a sort of vertiginous pressure cooker where vastly different people are brought into close quarters, sometimes juxtaposed against one another, and whose social interactions are played out intensely but only underneath protocols of silence born out of apathy, a respect for privacy, or the fear of public exposure, in a confined area which blurs the lines between personal and public space.

personal space invaders

In fact, this is one of the key reasons why we act the way we do in lifts. The unintentional invasion of our personal and peri-personal space (the space directly in front of us we can touch with our arms) puts us in a circumstance where we feel instinctively vulnerable. Our brain constantly monitors this peri-personal space, often processing it as a ghostly plastic extension of our body. When breached by a stranger, serotonin and norepinephrine – both neurotransmitters involved in managing the flight-or-fight response, stress and attention – are oozed into the bloodstream by a chain reaction occurring in the dorsal cortical networks stretching from the parietal to frontal lobe of the brain (see Pervic’s The Neurophysiology of 3D Space for more detail). Subsequently, any action which would be social and nonthreatening given a greater distance is suddenly perceived more aggressively, simply because of the proximity of that person to us and their arm’s reach.

Besides putting our guard up, psychologist Robert Sommer suggests another strategy which arises from this process (as the higher brain stifles the threat instinct and responds more appropriately) is to simply dehumanise the intruder, perceiving them only as a mechanical object, not a person. Either way, the net result is that we stand still and stay silent to subconsciously play down the breach.

There are other things which reinforce this behaviour. Lack of visual stimuli discourages conversation, as does the stereotype of what to expect in an elevator. Additionally, the short nature of the trip inclines us to remain reticent, but ironically the amount of time spent in a lift is actually ideal for quick chit-chat, hence why a 30 second spiel of your resume is called an ‘elevator pitch‘. For whatever reason, or combination of reasons, most of the time this social opportunity is squandered in favour of silence.

As unnatural but automatic as that silence feels when it imposes itself on us in a peopled lift, breaking it is liberating, as Isaacs’ film demonstrates. When broken, it makes it possible to reread the quasi-privacy of the space in a way which is less introspective and more intersubjective.

I can attest to this too. I’ll always remember being in a lift once, packed like sardines, everyone silent. The lift stopped at a floor and the doors quickly sprung open to reveal a couple of people waiting to get on. But they couldn’t. There was no room. And so they stood there, looking in at the wall of people presented to them, their mouths partially gaped, almost in horror that they’d reached an impasse.

The doors slowly squeaked shut, and then not a second afterward shot open again. The same people had pressed the button before the lift had registered its departure from the floor. Again, no one got on, no one got off – two groups of people stared silently at one another, and again, after another 5 second stalemate, the doors slowly, slowly, squeaked shut once more, closing in on the dumbfounded would-be-boarders’ faces.

The absurdity of the scene triggered something in me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I burst out laughing, then quickly contained myself, then struggled to hold it back (try watching this without doing the same). Some people in the lift glared in my direction trenchantly and wild-eyed. But then as I continued futilely to muffle my snickers in the otherwise silent lift, something happened. Other people joined in. You could see their lips purse and contort into smiles, then you could hear rushes of nosed air violently released like air brakes, followed by quiet laughing and shuddering shoulders.

The whole lift became instantly less suffocating and together we unlocked each other’s behavioural straitjackets. By the fourteenth floor, where I was getting off, most of the lift was in stitches.

Perhaps it’s for moments like this that designers and architects of built and urban environments are increasingly looking at ways to break silences, or currently asocial situations, by inclining them toward pro-social conditions. Social Stairs (above) is a 2012 project by Nupky’s Nadine van Amersvort and co, inspired by a similar experiment done in 2009 under a Volkswagen initiative called The Fun Theory. If you’re into this stuff, I recommend checking out some of the quirky ideas on that site, as well as this version of pedestrian PONG

That said, a big drawback of these sorts of interventions is that most of the time they’re impractical, or are best suited for short bursts. For the rest of the time, there are other, more subtle approaches. Take for example the famed Guggenheim architect Frank Gehry who’s been contracted to design a building in my neck of the woods which encourages people to literally ‘bump into each other’ by making select stairwells and corridors tighter than usual (you can listen to the full interview here). In a similar vein, Pixar Disney’s Ed Catmull comments on the design of their Silicon Valley headquarters as follows:

Most buildings are designed for some technical purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters. At the center is a large atrium, which contains the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms and mailboxes. As a result everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of a workday.” 

Read more about the design of Pixar’s studios here.

It’s undeniable in discourse that certain social aspects of our modern lives are either deliberately or unintentionally stifled, and the lift is just one case study in a sea of silences. What these confronting, seemingly awkward silences are a symptom of is another question, and a very complex one at that. That’s part of the mission of this blog to dispel, but by far, the most effective remedy would require a change in our perception to be more attentive and responsive to opportunities for connection and community, especially in unexpected spaces.

twisterlift

That’s not for everyone though; for now, there are people looking for creative ways around the social limitations imposed on us by the architecture of last century, and succeeding. So let’s get the ball rolling ourselves, what moments have you had which break the silence and how could we build these moments into our everyday interactions?

More specifically, what ways can you think up to overcome the interactive vertigo we’re clouded by in the lift? How can they be made less edgy and awkward, more calming and socially refreshing? Comment to your heart’s content.

As always thanks for reading. Second part of the Facebook posts coming in a week.

Mark

Does Facebook bring us closer?

What does Facebook do

Poke. Poke. Like. Tag. Like. Comment. Stalk. Share. Message. Backstab. Poke. Like.

Ok, that was a tad simplistic (I forgot Farmville), but this pretty much sums up a day in the life for many of Facebook’s 584 million daily active users. And it’s pretty normal to us now.

Being around since 2004, Facebook is way past the point of novelty and has become a ubiquitous fact of modern life. 1 billion registered users would make it the third largest country in the world, and 604 million daily active mobile users would make it one of the most fast-paced. It’s undeniable that today a large part of our lives are lived beneath that cosy blue banner.

For these posts though I want you to take a step back and out of your comfort zone by asking just how, if at all, Facebook works as a surrogate for social presence. And I want to look at this question on a few levels, first the local, then the global (part 2) and finally the commercial (part 3).

In the rise of Facebook (and other social networking sites), we’ve sort of tacitly assumed that a comment on someone’s timeline is directly equivalent to a comment made face-to-face, or that a ‘like’ is the same as giving a holla by tipping your hat (as though we live in some Dickensian fantasy-world). In fact this is the only way our behaviour on Facebook makes sense. If we stop thinking of a mouse-click as a symbolic action synonymous with an actual social activity, the whole framework falls down. It’s only because we attach a face to the click that the click carries actual social weight.

Wanted Cursor

A lot of this seems unnoteworthy, and you’re right. For the most part this suspension of disbelief is harmless and is useful in facilitating, replicating and even substantiating our social networks. I’ve talked about how interactions over Skype are neurochemically watered-down versions of face-to-face contact, and in many ways our interactions with one another on Facebook are an even more diluted version of that. Written sentences and mouse-clicks can never fully capture things like body language, subtle changes in tone, or that irreplaceable feeling we get when being physically present with people we know and love. But they do help humanise the otherwise impersonal task of personal computing.

EDIT: In fact it’s been shown that engaging in a mental simulation of a physical activity, when done for a long time in multiple sittings, can produce to a slightly lesser degree the neurophysiological changes equivalent to those that would occur if you had physically done the activity itself. Put simply, by imagining something vividly enough, the brain can essentially rewire itself (but crucially, not as strongly as it would if actually doing the thing). So far this has only been documented in activities which involve fine motor skills, but considering how interrelated regions of the brain are, it may be the case, although this should be taken with a massive grain of salt, that socialising through a simulator like Facebook as a precursor for social behaviour may actually contribute net positively to our ability to socialise, not negatively as touted by mainstream media. If you’re interested in this area of neuroplasticity, I highly recommend checking out this great video by ASAPscience and this ARN article from 2005.

At the same time though, this mentally social mindset can come at a physical cost. Not a large one, but a noticeable one. Robert Putnam puts it neatly in his 1995 essay Bowling Alone when talking about television and its effect on ‘privatising’ downtime:

Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment.”

In the same way, our number of Facebook friends can easily skyrocket into the hundreds, but the lived reality of our relationships is always much humbler. What we have is width without depth. 

This claim is somewhat quantified by recent study. In 2011, researchers at Kent State found that although broadcasting the best of ourselves to a large number of friends on Facebook boosts our self image, when times get tough the perceived social support we need is just not there. Meanwhile, a more down-to-earth and others-orientated approach to using Facebook yielded smaller networks but an increase in perceived social support. Another paper in 2012 saw those low in self-esteem ‘friend’ people on Facebook more actively as a type of compensation, rather than a means to facilitate preexisting interpersonal relationships.

And in a Cornell study led by Matthew Brashears which gained considerable media coverage, it’s suggested that the number of people we consider close friends – when modelled – has steadily contracted since 1985 to 2010, from 3 down to 2.03. I should say, as Brashears himself stresses, that this doesn’t mean we’re becoming antisocial, or asocial. It simply means that social activities are becoming increasingly subsumed and supplemented by non-traditional forms in which closeness’ is positioned as a cog within a broader paradigm of ‘connectivity’.

Being connected, not necessarily close, has come to characterise the narrative through which we understand our relationships today.

Closeness Vs Connectivity

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t and don’t have meaningful relationships with friends, family, neighbours etc. It’s obvious that we can and do. But when we talk about connectivity, and look at the ways that word is used today, it’s clear that it’s referring to something else while being equated to the type of interaction we experience with friends, family, neighbours etc., regardless of whether it’s directly analogous or not. When conflated in this way it becomes important to think about the new criteria for locating and categorising those real, meaningful, close relationships within a larger conceptual spectrum of relationships which aren’t so real, or not real in the same sense, yet still carry important social significance in today’s world.

This is getting quite dense. Let’s backtrack. On one hand we have relationships with real people in the real world – anything from soulmates to Starbucks to strangers. On the other hand, we also deal with close replicas of those relationships online, modeled off of profoundly different social dynamics (such as anonymity, absence, asymmetricity). Call it the uncanny valley of human interaction.

But we talk about them as though they’re the same, and we use the same language of ‘connectivity’ to talk about them both. This in turn makes us conceive of them in the same way. It seems these two distinct clouds of relationships converge and collapse in the metaphor of the ‘social network‘, which in many ways is the go-to, if not the only, descriptor for modern interaction. But is it helpful to entangle the question of modern personhood in computational analogies like these? Is someone’s connectability as important an attribute of their identity as their surname or portfolio?

I’m probably overthinking this. Probably. Definitely. Forget I said anything.

As with most things it’s hard to pinpoint what ultimate effect Facebook has on our immediate social networks, and just how much of those networks are inflated by empty space. I think a distinction between closeness and connectivity is important, but not sacrosanct, in conceptualising this issue. If closeness describes the depth, the quality of relationships, then connectivity describes the width, the quantity of them, and the activities associated with cultivating visibility.

If that’s the case, maybe Facebook doesn’t bring us quite as close as we think. But what do you think? On a local level is Facebook better at facilitating width, or depth? Or both equally? What functions of Facebook would you group under each category?

Til next time,

Mark

Is a traffic jam a tribe?

Is a traffic jam a tribe?

For many the commute to and from work is a daily ritual. I don’t just mean this in the slang ‘repetitive waste of time’ sense of the word either. It’s also true in a very primordial, tribal sense.

Think of it like this: driving to work is like going on a mammoth hunt. It’s you and your workforce kin, side by side, going in to fulfill your societal responsibility. It’s a nomadic movement you engage in daily in order to sustain the survival of yourself, your family, or your position within a social network. But unlike the epic odysseys and pilgrimages of yesteryear, the modern commute is a journey essentially stripped of any physical effort, human interaction, romance or adventure.

Oddly enough because of this, the commute isn’t really a journey at all. I’d argue it’s more a necessary psychological transition from one state of mind (home/rest) to another (work/action). It’s more mental than it is physical, and it’s in this sense that it comports more closely onto the profile of a ritual than of a journey.

In 1909 a popular French ethnographer called Arnold van Gennep described the ritual as a cluster of symbolic activity which passes through 3 distinct stages; separation, liminality, return. The first and last stages are easy enough to understand; separation is the act of bringing novitiates into a special or somehow separate time and space. This could be anything from wearing ceremonial clothing, depriving a sense, using a different language, or entering a sacred building. Likewise, return is the informing of this group of their new responsibilities and the areas of culture they’ve (re)gained access to.

You can sort of see this with the commute. As soon as the engine is turned on until the moment it turns off we enter a different mindset. Suddenly our sense of space shrinks down to our dashboard, blind spots, a small radius around our metal box, and a loose awareness of Point B and the fog of war between. Also, our sense of time becomes remarkably teleological, or in other words, it’s funneled toward a very definitive endpoint. When driving we slip into a sort of spatio-temporal tunnel vision, and when we arrive at our destination (be it work or home) we’re greeted with a new set of duties and priorities.

The Ritual Process

But so far that’s nothing really special and could apply to anything; it’s the second stage of liminality which is most interesting.

During a rite of passage, Van Gennep saw liminality as a central period of disassociation where everything hangs in the balance. The past is left, the future has not yet arrived; relationships are tossed around and cultural symbols are used unconventionally. Identities invert and disappear. Consider how a wedding couple will stand alongside the priest at a pulpit, or how graduands briefly share the stage with faculty. Things are put in a new perspective as novitiates are brought to the edges of their culture, and once there, turning back, are able to see it at its maximal form. It’s kind of like the cultural equivalent of skydiving, or seeing Earth from space (AKA the Overview Effect). It’s through this vectorial passageway that we’re then able to enter into a new layer of social existence.

Intrigued by this idea of liminality, Victor Turner explored how this stage brings out a “generalized social bond”, or what he defined as ‘communitas’ in his 1969 book, The Ritual Process:

It is as though there are here two major “models” for human interrelated­ness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured  differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal­ economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of” more” or “less”. The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudi­mentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated communitas, com­munity, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.” (1995, p. 96)

I admit, this all sounds a bit artsy fartsy – it seems to suit the purposes of academics more than it accurately captures the messiness of human culture. But that said, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it, especially when considering the commute as a modern ritual.

For one, it’s no secret that we tend to become a different person behind the wheel. In a way we sort of surrender our sense of self as our vehicle and number plate become more important identifiers than our face and name. Expanding our peripersonal space in this way may make us more aware of our surroundings and sensitive toward possible threats against us and those in our immediate vicinity. This results in a double-layered form of a psychological phenomenon called deindividuation, where our individual identity is bound up in our vehicle first, and in the traffic flow second. We go with the flow by subconsciously mirroring the behaviour of others.

Ironically, it could be this misfiring of empathy which compels us to make bad collective decisions which only make the situation worse. This awesome site by Bill Beaty runs through a few reasons why. From invisible accidents, to unnecessary jams caused by the zipper phenomenon or rubbernecking; almost all of them can be linked with the tendency for us to copy the aggressive actions of the drivers around us. Although this behaviour seems intuitive because everyone else is doing it, the density of congested traffic caused by this method (to close gaps, creep, tailgate and be defensive) corresponds to the movement of particles in a gas→liquid state, as researched by Takashi Nagatani in his 2002 report The Physics of Traffic Jams. In a system where the less solid the better, this attitude is counterproductive.

Feedback loop

But there’s an even bigger hurdle preventing a roadside rendition of kumbayah, and that’s the language of the road itself.

Alongside personal disassociation, Turner recognises that a key part of the liminal stage is a language of symbols, shapes, colours and other abstract signifiers outside the regular realm of communication. Inside the car, our capacity for language is limited to a horn, indicators, brake lights, and the occasional hand gesture. Not prime tools for discussion, but then again that’s probably a good thing. Outside the car there’s arrows, signage, lane markers, pedestrian crossings, and as semiotician Stuart Hall notes, traffic lights – the epitome of this system:

Red and Green work in the language of traffic lights because ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ are meanings which have been assigned to them in our culture by the code or conventions governing this language, and this code is widely known and almost universally obeyed in our culture and cultures like ours – though we can well imagine other cultures which do not possess the code, in which this language would be a complete mystery.” (1997, p. 26)

Everything on the road says “Go, go, go! Don’t stay here! Keep moving!”, and rightly so. It deliberately avoids connection and is set up for movement. It’s the necessary villain keeping us apart. Every now and then though the language breaks down and we get glimpses of the humanity lying underneath it all. A fire engine needs to get through, we all move to the side. There’s a power outage and we have to use co-operation and eye contact to decide when to cross an intersection. A driver flashes their lights to warn you about cops ahead. You get in a fender-bender and need to deal with an apologetic driver, or an angry one. Roadworks, courtesy waves, motorcyclist nods – there are genuine human moments when the spell of automatism is briefly broken and we’re forced to interact with the people around us. But for the most part this rarely happens.

Makin' love on the free-love freeway

Everywhere the commute in its current format is a ritual gone wrong where communitas actively works against us. It’s got all the potential; it’s a time where we’re suspended between two states of consciousness and engage in a symbolic language of codes and objects; it’s an effective dream state where our actions are fluid and collective, unfurling into an immediately repercussive narrative around us. And yet it’s more apt to say that the “roads are a nightmare”.

The modern commute is a profoundly time-consuming, anti-social experience, tantalisingly close to something salvageable yet stubbornly out of reach. There could be ways around it though. National Drive programs might help, but people are increasingly using their iPods on the road over radio. We could expand our hand gesture vocabulary, or carpool more. We could even get rid of roadsigns and traffic lights all together, as has been done in many cities with surprisingly positive results.

What do you think? How can we break the spell, let out our inner caveman and kindle that campfire?

Looking forward to seeing your suggestions and comments below.

Mark

Are there communities right under our noses?

A couple of years ago when I was still at university, I was behind a project called “I was here” which looked at how people interact with public space and the communities within them. To do this I made a bench, set it up every day for a week in a high-traffic location on campus, covered it in a sheet and with pens attached, essentially asked for it to be written all over, vandalised and defaced. And it was.

What you see in the picture above is from the fourth day of this project, where throughout the course of the day people had scrawled messages of love, animosity, pop culture references, internet memes, poems and emoticons. If you’re interested you can see bigger versions and transcripts of the sheets from the other days here on my flickr.

What I like about this project is the way it makes a usually invisible community materialise seemingly out of thin air, and the sort of narrative of interaction left in its wake. For a start, it’s a good gauge for the mental age of the campus, with each sheet invariably a vast documentary expanse of playful giddiness dotted with gnomic tidbits. While the majority of comments are what we’d call ‘immature’ at first glance (insults, pranks, trolling, innuendo etc.), I think this is more a symptom of the inherently rebellious act of defacing public property, basking in an anonymity we normally never exploit, than on the psyche of passersby. Even if it’s invited it still feels like you’re exposing yourself.

And in many ways the people who wrote on these sheets did precisely that. Every scribble, no matter how unnoteworthy, tells a story. And over the week, these small scribbles morphed into plot points on a much larger narrative arc.

This sheet from the first day sets up some key themes which would reappear throughout the week. One of these are the complex webs of interaction you can see in the top left corner, where someone writes a message, a revisionist comes and adds to it or crosses sections out, and others join in to amend it by drawing arrows and underlining. Most times this took the form of objections to religious messages, but there are other, more humorous encounters, for example, debating the sexuality of ‘Will’ and references to Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Humour was definitely used as a bonding mechanism. Bonding to who though, who knows.

By the second and third day there were recurring characters. E+K confessed their love on more than one occasion, a stickman superman appeared falsely claiming ownership for the project and then vanished. A poetic brick graced the bench twice, as did someone who found the art ‘strangely arousing’, and as I later found out one girl was responsible for a large number of illustrations across multiple days (self-dubbed the ‘I think everybody should like everybody‘ girl).

If at the start of the week the bench was a strange piece of art, by the end it had become strangely familiar and trustworthy. Many advertised their websites or societies and clubs. In a sense, the sheets stopped simply recording the thoughts of passersby and came to represent the preexisting campus community as a whole. On top of this, once I revealed my identity, people felt comfortable writing more personal messages and even mobile numbers. In just one week, very real people had identified themselves on a completely impersonal surface.

Yet there’s something inherently deceptive about all this, and that is, for all the apparent humanity captured on these sheets, almost all members of this fractured community are figments of each other’s imagination. It’s impossible to know exactly who wrote each part when – not only for us now, retrospectively, but also for the people at the time. For them, they were communicating with a statement written by someone earlier who could only be imagined, and likewise, who they were writing to was only an imagined counterpart in the yet-to-be-determined future. Despite appearances, at no point do two people directly connect; the only thing which interacts are our ideas of people.

Splitting hairs? Probably. But something which really came home to me when taking this project out is how we cope with understanding others when we’re not in the same place at the same time.

Instinctively we seem to shape presence out of absence, familiarity out of anonymity, but it’s all done client side. A lot of this is explained philosophically and psychologically by a theory of mind; the ability to imagine what another is thinking, and is an important aspect of healthy cognitive development. However, it’s these asymmetric encounters (that push our ability to develop accurate theories of mind) which are increasingly typifying how we interact with each other online and, ironically, are key to conceptualising connectivity today.

Seeing this dynamic in another context (on a bench) is an important step toward realising that the way we ‘connect’ online is only a small part of a larger phenomenon in the paradox of modern connectivity.

So besides benches, what other invisible communities do we unwittingly stumble into and out of on a daily basis? Where else do communities exist stubbornly outside their constituent’s peripheral vision and how could you make that community more visible? What strange interactions have you had which break the anonymity of modern life? Let me know your thoughts on this and more below.

Cheers,

Mark

Can you make eye contact over Skype?

Perhaps the creepiest thing I've ever drawn

With video-calling and VoIP services like Skype and FaceTime at all-time high adoption rates among businesses and individuals alike, and being touted as ‘almost as good as being there’, the question of just how good a substitute these services are for genuine face-to-face contact should be asked. So, can you ‘meaningfully connect’ (whatever that means) over Skype? Can you make eye contact or, at the end of the day, are you destined to see pixels first and pupils second?

This isn’t just a philosophical question, it’s primarily a matter of neurology and psychology. Skype definitely has an edge over other traditional means of communication. Unlike letters, telephone calls, text messages and Wall posts, with Skype you can actually see who you’re talking to. Physiologically, this makes all the difference.

For one, a whole plethora of nonverbal cues is made available. Being able to recognise facial expressions, micro-expressions, voice intonation and, to a certain extent, body language enhance the quality of the interaction. What’s more, the mere sight of a friend, and especially of someone you love, triggers a vivid neural recreation of that person (or the idea of that person). Visual information is sent from the eyes to the occipital lobe to the fusiform gyrus, a structure which on top of other things, assigns meaning to images, words and faces. Think face-detection on a digital camera.

How we see faces

From there the message enters the amygdala and excites the limbic system, the emotional core of your brain, triggering remembered behaviours, stimulating blood flow to the heart, hormone secretion and other events in an endocrinological chain reaction. It’s the same reason we feel happy when we go to our favourite childhood playground, or get irritated when we hear a song on the radio which is looped at work (although a different part of the brain is responsible for audio inputs). Even when we know that the screen is not our significant other, we still react like we would in real life.

This TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran sums it up nicely, as does this comment from Christof Koch, a prominent researcher in the field (the full paper can be read here):

How is meaning expressed in neural terms? And how does this expression of meaning arise? We suspect (Crick and Koch, 1995c) that meaning derives both from the correlated firing described above (sic.) and from the linkages to related representations. For example, neurons related to a certain face might be connected to ones expressing the name of the person whose face it is, and to others for her voice, memories involving her and so on, in a vast associational network, similar to a dictionary or a relational database. Exactly how this works in detail is unclear.

But despite all this, we can’t help but feel that it’s not quite the same. And we’d be right.

In researching this, I went to where all the cool kids go, reddit, and asked what people thought. I highly recommend reading both posts that I made here and here. Naturally, a prime candidate for this sort of question emerged; people who are in or have been in a long-distance relationship (LDR). For LDR couples, Skype is often the lifeblood of the relationship, a useful substitute for physical presence. People reported feeling ‘comforted’, ‘close’, ‘nice’, instantly happier, but invariably this was paired with words such as ‘distant’, ‘distracted’, ‘teased’, ‘torturous’.

Skype is a double-edged sword for LDR couples; on one hand it’s a special time to connect, on the other it’s a painful reminder of physical absence. It’s like visiting someone in prison behind glass.

NO TOUCHING

Unsurprisingly, no one has yet (as specifically as this) rounded up friends or couples, stuck one of them in an fMRI, had them chat to each other over Skype, measured the levels of dopamine, cortisol, oxytocin (or other neurotransmitters and hormones involved in bonding/love) coursing through their synapses during, and then compared them against a real life rendezvous. Aspects have certainly been addressed, but like most things in this area the research done is scant and piecemeal at best.

That said, some things are clear.

Firstly, taking away the possibility for physical contact inhibits the full potential of the emotional response evoked by the limbic system. When we are touched (affectionately, through hugs, handshakes, handholding etc.) oxytocin is released like pollen from a flower. When we have sex, cortisol levels (a stress-relieving hormone) skyrocket. But when you subtract touch from the equation you’re left with, pardon the phrasing, a neutered experience.

Interestingly this doesn’t seem to be the case for relationships where physical contact is less prominent (friends, business, therapy etc). In fact, remote psychiatry is relatively as effective as face-to-face therapy. It’s still there regardless, but it seems the stronger your tactile history with your Skypee, the bigger that sense of distance.

Can't touch this

Similarly, the absence of smell subtracts an important sensory input. Pheromones and other scents emitted by someone we know trigger powerful memories associated with that person, and that’s something which is difficult to replicate. The neuronal representation of a loved one is always going to fall a few dead pixels short minus smell, or at least be somewhat incomplete. There are other factors too. Low resolutions and slow frame rates make it harder to detect micro-expressions, the blue LED light emitted by most screens may make us feel less calm/warm/fuzzy. All in all, the compromise of the full multi-sensory experience plays a big part in changing the dynamic of the interaction.

This is also asserted by Richard Lannon in “A General Theory Of Love” (thanks to redditor artwooo for the quote):

The limbic brain registers the disorienting loss of attachments as the all-purpose ache of homesickness. Letters and phone calls are a salve on the wound, but insubstantial substitutes for the full-bandwidth sensory experience of nearness to the ones you love. To sustain a living relationship, limbic regulation demands sensory inputs that are rich, vivid and frequent.”

There is some silver lining here though. Use over time can improve our ability to read faces over the net. If you only know someone through the web, that may be preferable to seeing them in person. As mentioned, the less prominent touch is, the less jarring Skype will be. And finally we can look at how LDR couples compensate for this obvious shortcoming. They call daily, five hours at a time, talk each other to sleep and wake up with the other still on the line. Mirroring behaviours, such as contagious yawning is possible, as is going on remote dates to the park via 3G networks. Couples watch movies together by streaming the same thing at the same time, and some even hug their partner’s pillow during a Skype call, just for those hints of scent which add to the feeling of closeness. Would Lannon consider these inputting behaviours as rich, vivid and frequent? What do you think?

When all’s said and done, there’s no substitute for the real thing. But that doesn’t mean what we experience together on Skype is fraudulent, apathetic or superficial. Rather, what we’re left with is a neurochemically watered-down version of genuine face-to-face contact. It’s the same feelings, just a bit weaker, missing a few inputs and typically mixed with other stuff.

As they get better and better, video calling services are increasingly characterised as what it means to ‘connect’ to each other in the digital age. But considering what you’ve read here, is it right to use the word ‘connection’? If we always have something ‘real’ to compare it with, is this really ‘connection’ at all? Originally a black/white issue (connection/disconnection), nowadays the rhetoric surrounding connectivity is increasingly casting it in all shades of gray. Is a discrepancy between ‘contact’ and ‘connection’ beginning to form? Or are we redefining that word retrospectively in light of current technology?

Let me know your thoughts on this below, or anything related for that matter, from more research to your own personal anecdotes.

Thanks for reading,

Mark