Today was an historic day, and I’ve got the screenshots to prove it!
Walking into Chicago Public Library after work to pick up a book (I had no idea that you could get these things anywhere other than Amazon!), I saw a sign which said something to the effect of “The library auditorium will be open as of 10 a.m. for people to gather and watch the presidential inauguration.”
That’s neat, I thought. I would have liked to have been there.
You see, I watched the inauguration while I was at work. My co-workers were gathered in the break room watching a grainy tv broadcast. I was at my desk, watching a live, high-quality video feed from CNN augmented by a stream of mostly tacky or trite, but occasionally funny, comments from the Facebook peanut gallery. (Great partnership, by the way; first time I actually saw the value in that social networking service.)
Fitting, perhaps, at the dawn of this new administration, in these times of purported Change, to be watching an event a thousand miles away, in real time, ‘accompanied’ by all of my ‘friends,’ who are scattered throughout the country, and indeed the world. Does this ability of shifting time and place not represent the peak of technological achievement?
Well, yes it does …. I guess. The confluence of technologies such as the internet, streaming digital video and social networking have indeed given us the power to partially transcend the constraints of time and space, consuming information and communicating with people at our own convenience, regardless of the temporal and spatial gaps which divide us.
But to chalk this all up as an absolute and unqualified positive is conveniently (if not naively) leaving something out of the picture. Upon reading that sign on the door of the Chicago Public Library, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret. Regret that technology enabled me to behold this event in such a personalized manner. Regret that I wasn’t there to witness this historic occasion in that auditorium filled with complete strangers, all bound together by nothing other than the fact that they all happen to reside in the same city. There’s something magical in that — the kind of magic that can’t be captured in a use case or a experience definition document.
Among the many wondrous things achieved by technology, the lowest common denominator may be that it makes our lives more convenient. Technologies like telephony or video-conferencing allow us to shift place, and talk to someone who’d never otherwise be able to see us or hear our voice. Recording technologies help us shift time, committing audio, video or some combination of the two to an archive which can be subsequently played back at will, regardless of whether it was recorded one minute or one hundred years prior. I’d argue that mobile technologies have facilitated something I call decision-shifting; no longer must we commit any appreciable amount ahead of time physically meeting at a particular time our place when we are but a text message or short phone call away from a last-minute change of plans.
So what’s the harm in all this ?
Perhaps this is too grave a word to use for what can be considered a somewhat frivolous concern. But what other term can be used to describe how technology like the microwave has impacted the tradition associated with a proper sit-down family dinner, how TiVo has affected the ceremony surrounding the weekly viewing of a favorite TV show among friends, or how email has all but taken every last bit of romance out of written correspondence.
I don’t say these things as a hater; I am a user and proponent of these technologies, and it is indeed my livelihood to further advance technology to better suit the needs of those who utilize it. But as a professional trained in human-computer interaction, I nevertheless think it is important to recognize how they impact us, on both an individual and a societal level. I don’t plan on halting my use of these time- and place-shifting technologies because of the barely audible din of social fabric slowly ripping apart, but events like the one I’ve described here do give me pause, and a chance evaluate how my notions of sanctity have changed as a result of living in a whenever, wherever society.
Note: Apologies, reader, if, based on the title, you thought this article would be about something more exciting, like intergalactic travel or time-porting. Actally, I don’t even know what time-porting is, so you’re s.o.l. there. Don’t ever check this blog for posts about time-porting, in fact, because it will likely just be a bunch of gibberish.
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