Thursday, December 29, 2011
Our IM/text message abbreviations (lol, rofl, etc...) and our emoticons ( :) :o ;P etc.) reflect the artificiality of synchronous textual communication. Maybe artificiality is too strong a word. Maybe remoteness is accurate enough, even if it doesn’t capture the effects of the physical separation: the lack of visual cues, intonation, chemical sensitivity and exchange. These are the real sacrifice.
Absent the physical and chemical signals of intention and pleasure, we use abbreviations and smileys to share a little of the missing human element in our digital communication, a little of what makes our text conversations more than a Turing test. But my realization is that these signals that we send are often inaccurate. How often are we actually laughing out loud when we write “lol”? Or rolling on the floor laughing? How often are we physically smiling when we type the pervasive colon-parentheses? More often, we send these as cues so that the person on the other end of the message can better understand us. We, more likely, are sitting before a screen or standing with thumbs dancing across a phone.
But this robs us of the physical experience that goes along with a funny conversation, or a serious one, or a sad one, etc. In the physical presence of conversation partners, we might actually laugh, or frown, or wink, or even roll on the floor laughing. Without this physical act, our emotional experiences are disconnected from our physical lives. Facebook posts and pictures, text messages and chat windows, all trigger the chemical floods that make up our emotional feeling, but, sedentary before a keyboard and screen or paused somewhere with thumbs skating across our phones, we process our lives increasingly in our brain alone.
Is this good or bad? Who can say? The manifestation of emotion in physical act seems to be an enlarging, cathartic experience. It is how we process that chemical rush, the endorphins, the serotonin, or epinephrine, etc. Our physical acts--our smiles, our laughs, our crying, our leaping in excitement--they increase our activity, they cause the physical circulation and processing of the chemicals that drive our feeling, they move us forward into new states of mind, processing and moving on from the old. Diminishing this part of our human experience seems costly on a fundamental level.
But this is not a diatribe against technology-aided connectedness. The gains of digital communication far outweigh the losses. But what seems important to me is that we try to recoup those losses. It seems important to me that we allow ourselves the freedom to actually laugh out loud when we’re by ourselves or online, to jump when we’re excited, to frown if we’re sad, or simply to go for a walk after or while we’re communicating. Keeping movement attached to feeling seems an essential element not only of a healthy body, but also a healthy mind.
This might make us feel a little self-conscious: our laughing voices echoing in our apartments or rooms, our dancing when no one is watching, our frowns of disappointment. Our awareness of these solitary actions might make us feel oddly, physically alone. But maybe remembering that isn’t such a bad thing.
Friday, December 23, 2011
When the iPad was first released, I asked a friend how it stored files. So new was iOS, with its scrolling pages of apps, and so ingrained was the concept of a desktop, with its windows and file icons, that the idea that files could be stored within the apps themselves took some getting used to.
Suddenly, it seemed to me, the death of the desktop was nigh.
No more documents strewn across that backdrop picture of your family or best friends. No more leftover .dmg or .dll files scattered like the junk surrounding a construction site. Suddenly the user interface seemed so clean. We can’t be trusted, it seems, to keep our digital offices in order.
But no, I thought, we rely too much on our desktops to change them. We need them as creative spaces. They’re where we have room to spread out, to lay out our messes so we can mash and mix them up. Can our creativity survive in cursor-less, un-arrangeable spaces?
Now, several years and a major operating system upgrade later, we have Apple’s Lion. And, lo and behold, when we pinch our three fingers with our thumbs, up pops LaunchPad, that familiar gridded screen of Apps. And I wonder now: is this the integration of the desktop and iOS? Or, is this the beginning of a shift, a shift from the desktop playpen that we have known for three decades to the personal computer operating system of the future: an adapted iOS?
Steve Jobs and Apple are notorious for knowing what we need--and what we don’t need--before we do. We disbelieved the absence of the 3.5 inch drive when the iMac was shipped with only a CD tray. We started again when the MacBook Air shipped with only wifi and USB ports. (We even bought the Superdrive to be safe, expecting we’d need it, only to return it, still in its shrinkwrap, days later.)
Is an inaccessible desktop the next fast one?
I visited a Mac help forum once to find out how I could retrieve a feature that had been removed in the Lion upgrade. At the bottom of the comment thread--after an array of helpful solutions--the last comment noted, as if in summary: “If Steve Jobs thinks you don’t need the feature, you probably don’t.”
Now, only several weeks later, I can’t even remember the feature I was looking for.
And so, do we need our desktops? Or will we look back and wonder why they lasted so long? Is this the writing on the wall for their demise? The race is already on to make browsers the new desktop--they run “web apps” after all. Is a clean, local, scrolling app list all we really need to connect our desktop machines to our cloud-based lives?
Or, really, is this just the warm-up for something a little further down the line: the total integration of touch, voice, and three-dimensional projection--a user interface that connects our desktops made of atoms to our information made of bytes?