mirroring thingies

10th October, 2006

I admire Jan Chipchase’s blog(s) for the way he seems to be locating elements wherever he is that: relate to his research, suggest questions, represent ideas or, generate concepts. He is exploring active connections between his mind and the artifacts he encounters. He documents these interactions and posts them in a way that, to me, suggests that a blog is a shared thought object – as much about the content provided by the author as the fact that it will be seen and considered by whoever happens to find it. Jan’s posts are expressing his interests while asking “what do you think?”. My experience has been that I leave his site and take his observations and, perhaps more importantly, his observational practice into my offline experience, where they integrate with whatever happens to be on my mind, and expand the dialogue I seem to be having with my own environment. In short, Jan’s work seems to have made me a better, more willing listener.

Jan is a scientist and researcher, and works for Nokia. As such, we can assume that his efforts are close to the ideas of the mobile web, perhaps the internet of things, maybe even Web2.0. This makes sense to me as I experience the mobile web (cell-phones, pda’s, rfid, semacode, qr, ar, wifi, bluetooth, etc…) as extending the form of the www beyond the desktop. The de-centralized, personally customizable, collective, interactive “form” of the web is being mapped onto the offline. As the points of contact and interaction within any environment are expanded, the electronic gizmos we haul around with us will have an increasingly active and overt role in the meanings we harvest from time spent within different spaces. This seems to be a model of something familiar.

A couple of years ago I was teaching a course on computation and interactivity and was preparing a lecture on how we use tools to compute our identities. I was motivated by something Ron Kuivola had said during a meeting while I was a grad student: “we train to the medium”. In preparing for my lecture I read some of Dr. John C. Lilly’s writings about his experiments with sensory deprivation tanks, and was struck by his findings that after several hours in the tank, subjects would emerge having forgotten key elements of their identities: name, age, where they lived, etc… slowly this information would return to them once they were out of the tank, but I was intrigued by the idea that our memories are embedded within our environments, that our identities are formed and exist at the active intersection of internal and external, and are not stored within our individual brains, somehow apart from the external world. After doing some research I concluded that we, as a species, have sensed this, and acted on it, for a long, long time.

It seems we are always pinging the environment and adapting accordingly. I heard an interview with the physicist Julian Barbour where he mentioned that the human body is producing and destroying 100 million million hemoglobin molecules every second, and that if one were able to view this life-death-life cycle through a powerful microscope the structures we would see second by second would be indistinguishable from each other. My point is that with each second we are coming into being and probably engaged in a persistent act of connecting, interacting, and establishing a relationship with our environment. Over the past few hundred years, however, we (especially in the west) have become fascinated with breaking things into discriminate parts, atomizing and analyzing our experience – our consciousness as very much “ours”, creating dialectic arguments based on the polarities of two concepts that are proven to be irreducible to each other: robust categorical thinking, sites of discernment, focal points of discrimination, development along a trajectory of greater and greater mastery of one distinct activity at the cost of a radical limitation of other potential experiences, etc…

The development of the internet seems to have coincided, or simply be an aspect of, another form of development, and we seem to be experiencing a shift towards understanding relationships between things, systems, interaction, and integration – a developmental trajectory of greater integration and broader experience.

Much of the latter seem embodied in the internet, and are expanding with it into the mobile web, which seems to be an excellent model of a dynamic, integrated, and interactive relationship between our selves and our environments.

As long as we don’t forget that it is a model, and, like any model, that its purpose is to create better understandings of our experience, leading to other, increasingly accurate models that will undoubtedly supercede what we are working with now, we will be ok. If we fetishize our current tools and prize them above the ideas they embody we will have some problems.

The tools of the mobile web and their potential for explicate, overt networking both locally and globally within various spaces are modeling our dynamic relationship with our environment, providing tangible forms to explore the idea, specifically, that “we” exist at the intersection of the internal (individuality, brain, sense organs, consciousness, ego) and external (that which is beyond our skin, the non-human, inanimate, built, collective), and the elements of both are engaged in active, persistent relationships of mutual influence – intercourse, in other words, where one does not exist without the other, and where both are tightly coupled and dynamic. The categories, the differences, don’t matter: what counts is the interaction.

“We train to the medium”, so said Ron Kuivola. There is a responsibility with creating objects, as the objects, made by someone and an embodiment of an idea, speak their intentions and interests to those who use them.

If we accept the web as model of a collective, evolving form it can teach us to become better listeners, and, if we chose to learn to listen, and take that knowledge with us into other interactions then regardless of what forms our models take we will develop along a trajectory of increasing empathy and greater integration within our species and our environments.

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