The Shallows in my Pocket

Last Sunday, I was lucky to attend one of the nicest Swedish traditions, spurring the ‘Christmas spirit’, if applicable: The Luciakonsert. The celebration of Saint Lucia is something on the ranks of Christmas in other Christian countries, just that the non-believing Swedish population sets a beautiful emphasis on tradition and folklore instead of religious values. So, the impressive french gothic style of Uppsala’s Domkyrka, the biggest cathedral in all of Scandinavia, working its magic of shrinking everyones mental and physical size, especially when the bell starts to ring, the crowd goes perfectly silent, and the lights go dark. Illuminated only be the flickering light of their candles, not only one but a number of choirs walk in, led by candle-crowned Lucia herself, dressed all-white with the symbolic red ribbon for the girls and a big, pointy white hat for the boys (yes …), they provide a magical stereo-surround-choir-experience of a kind. Slowly moving through the cathedral in a ritual-like fashion, singing touching Lucia- and Christmas-songs, eventually assembling in front of the altar and there occasionally accompanied by the lovely tones of a harp.

An all-perfect experience? Possibly, and I wish it was. But I wouldn’t bother to write a blog post about it if there wasn’t this one, tiny thing that I feel deserves some deeper attention. So imagine the above scene; As I got in relatively late, as usual, I was seated in the back of the cathedral, thus having most of all attendees directly in my vision when looking at the singing Lucia up front. Now, it’s a bit hard since abstract to put this into words, but what feels utterly crucial for me in such a setting is to fully immerse into the scene, listen hard, and appreciate the setting and performance. I mean, fully immerse. So I tried, but then, this happens: People hold up their mobile phones above all heads (and thus, exactly in my vision), abuse it as a camera, constantly tab onto the device’s shiny surface to adjust the focus or something of that kind (to enhance the experience of actually taking a photograph by tapping onto glass), and worst of all, flash. At least half of the people doing this don’t know how to turn off the ‘flash’ and act surprised that it fired in the first place (remember: we’re in a dark cathedral here). Some simply don’t bother and flash three times in a row. Frankly, I have to ask: Why?!

I realize that this might be a minor issue, and yes, you want to have a picture to remember that charming and oh-so-intimate Luciakonsert in December 2013. A reason might be to simply do a quick snapshot to ‘remember the occasion’, to be able to get back to it at a later point in future, to again feel how nice it was. Honestly, how often do we do that? Aren’t we loaded with the yet-next cool thing coming up immediately after? How often do we sit and go through our old smartphonephotos? It is, in a sense, an outsourcing of memory; just that the fundamental problem is that our biological memory is nothing like the electric one; we overlook the organic nature. Carr informs, “biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not” (be referred to the above book for a greater more detail). But my argument here is more that collectively doing so, we end up in a situation where something is subtracted from the overall experience. That something is to be found in the increasing difficulty of total immersion into the scene. I might be overly sensitive to such things, so I’m cautious to generalize, but: If there is, constantly, a glowing-something raised above the crowd, my animalic senses can’t help but to focus on that thing. Even within a split second, my brain realizes that it is just yet another smartphone taking a shitty picture, it is enough to, when repeated, hinder me to fully concentrate on one thing, and one thing only. And yes, there is always some other distraction as well, like the screaming baby or the occasional cough; The difference is that those things can’t be helped, but doing flashy pictures can be helped. It is a decision to do so. However, and this is my second point, this decision might not be as straight forward as a binary “take photo/take no photo”: I think by having a mobile internet connection as well, we feel an urgent need to share the great experience we are currently in, in no time. While the sharing of personally moving experiences  is perfectly understandable and humane, the difference is in the face of who we share those feelings with: Telling a good friend over dinner what happened or posting a mere photo to a (more or less) anonymous audience to ‘like it’; A big difference in time, scale, and geographic reach. The next question to ask is: “Would the collective experience of this concert be different if everybody were to drop her cellphone at the entrance?” If the answer is yes, then we ought to ask why.

Example: Meta-Sightseeing.
Example: Meta-Sightseeing.

Having finally read Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows‘, I can’t but help to draw certain parallels: In his book, Carr brings a lot of scientifically-backed research on the increasing fragmentation of our consciousness and argues for the web to distort our ability of ‘deep reading’, constantly throwing little snippets of information at us and not allowing the user to engage with one topic, at length and in depth. The “media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself”, Carr says. How about we extend that phenomena to a new level and claim that the internet, on another layer, also influences our ability of ‘deep listening’ and drastically further even, ‘deep being’? The mere thought of wanting to share the immediate experience is not the problem, rather it is having the possibility in your pocket. Not making use of the possibility seems like ‘losing out’ by not letting everybody know what amazing thing you are doing, right now. And even though we end up not sharing our experiences anyway, the mere feeling of needing to share is what I think distracts from the real experience. That’s weird.

Is this another level of distractedness? Not only when sitting in front of a computer, but merely having the possibility of potentially surfing the web, in our pockets, at all time? There are two levels of distraction, then: The first level of distraction is the real and physical one, i.e. a glowing screen in your vision. The second level of distraction is intrinsic, the constant wandering of your thoughts slightly away from the here and now towards that other place, not here, not here. On that level, it is also me getting increasingly annoyed about my brain of pre-formulating a blog post, after all not relevant anyways, a zero-comments kind of thing, instead of just not thinking anything and enjoying; fully immerse! Why bother? Not sure, but I didn’t particularly like it.

In Carr’s words, the Net is best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind. And really, this is about increasingly feeling distracted when walking through life. Yes, there are many, many good usages in having the world in our pockets too, I absolutely agree, but there is a price to pay (many prices, in fact, that we don’t tend to think about, but energy usage and raw materials and all the other  ‘externalities’ aside, this is about not-so-easy-to-measure price that our minds have to pay). Good old McLuhan called the content of a medium “the juice piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. What he could have hardly foreseen is that it is not just the content, but on another level, the medium itself.

Heidegger calls our ability to engage in meditative thinking the very essence of our humanity; “The frenzied-ness of technology threatens to entrench itself everywhere”, he says. Everywhere? Uh.

And yes, here’s my smartphone-event-picture. Shitty, right?

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