Did we ever look up?

We never look up is a photo blog. The photographer is a “mobile researcher from Finland” – that’s all we know about him or her. The black and white pictures show people interacting with the screens of their phones while being in public space. Some of them are sitting or standing; others are walking. Locations include sidewalks, squares, bars, shopping malls, public transports, busstops, etc. The people in the pictures seem to be glued to their screens. They are physically in public space, but it’s more accurate to say they are inside their own private world.

The author stated in an interview that he or she doesn’t want to criticize – the purpose is to document. The photo blog caused quite a lot of reactions. Many people see the smartphone trend as negative:

  • We don’t look at our surroundings anymore.
  • We don’t talk to each other anymore.
  • We seem to be addicted: we can’t stop.

Why do we have moral issues with these new technologies? Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist who’s the director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research. According to her new technology is seen as negative if it simultaneously changes our relation with space, time and other people:

1. Space. This is the case with smart phones: we are in our private bubble when using our phones in public.

I wrote before about how GPS changes the way we navigate the city: we follow the fastest route calculated by the software. Moving from A to B becomes very instrumental: we move our bodies to the destination. There is less chance for surprises and actual discoveries. We have less opportunity to build up a mental map of a city.

2. Time. Our internet connection in our smart phone means we’re always connected. The boundary between work and leisure becomes blurred. We can read email anytime now, even if we’re away from our computers. There’s a growing expectancy that email will be replied to quickly, not within days but rather hours.

Smartphones seem to accelerate our life. Think about making pictures for example. In the era of the analog camera, it took days before pictures could be shared with friends. Now this is an instant process. (See also Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed, especially chapter 1 on time.)

3. Other people. The pictures on the We never look up blog seem to suggest that we lost something there. Something has changed in our social relationships, but I’m not so sure that it’s as dramatic as some people suggest.

Let’s think about affordances: a smart phone is designed for solo experiences (small screen size, comes with earbuds, …) But so are books, newspapers and magazines. A friend who made a trip around the world told me he noticed the same unwritten social law in hostels everywhere: reading a book means “leave me alone”, while having a closed book in front of you on the table is a signal that you’re available for a chat.

Perhaps we’re nostalgic for an era that never existed? Hasn’t disconnecting from the world always been a part of life in the city? A necessity to make life amongst the crowds possible?

One important difference between smart phones and printed media: it’s almost impossible to guess what a smartphone user is engaged in – might be an email, a game, a book, … The design of printed matter betrays some its content, for example the cover of a book or the newspaper format. For my globetrotting friend, the title of a book might be a good conversation starter. Would we be less annoyed by the people around us that were glued to their smartphones if we had some indication of what they were doing? What if the back or side of our phone could for example show the name of article we were reading?

2 thoughts on “Did we ever look up?

  1. Interesting breakdown. I always called it the hypercity, and it’s been going on from before we were mobile. Space, Time and Other people are the basic components that are rearranged for every individual because of various networked (digital) components into a new “here”. The fact that we are able to do this while on the go now is disruptive for our lifestyle, but it’s still the same principle that has been possible since the telegraph or maybe since the messenger on horse or carier pigeon. Therefore I say it’s human nature, although some of us will slower or never adapt to it. More on this in my master thesis http://kaos.ashrae.be/files/hyperfinal.pdf (in dutch) that is probably a bit outdated (2004) too :)

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