Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Mendelson's undead

I want to devote several posts, in the coming days, to this essay by Edward Mendelson. I should begin by saying that Edward is a good friend of mine and someone for whom I have the deepest respect — which will not keep me from disagreeing with him sometimes. It’s also important to note that his position in relation to current communications technologies can’t be easily categorized: in addition to being the Lionel Trilling Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and the literary executor of the poet W. H. Auden, he has been a contributing editor for PC magazine since 1988 (!), writing there most recently about the brand-new file system of the upcoming MacOS Sierra. He also does stuff like this in his spare time. (I’m going to call him “Mendelson” in what follows for professionalism’s sake.)

That, in the essay-review that I want to discuss, Mendelson’s attitude towards social-media technology is sometimes quite critical is in no way inconsistent with his technological knowledge and interests. Perhaps this doesn’t need to be said, but I have noticed over the years that people can be quite surprised when a bona fide technologist — Jaron Lanier, for example — is fiercely critical of current trends in Silicon Valley. They shouldn’t be surprised: people like Lanier (and in his own serious amateur way Mendelson) learned to use computers at a time when getting anything done on such a machine required at least basic programming skills and a significant investment of time. The DIY character of early computing has almost nothing in common with the culture generated today’s digital black boxes, in which people can think of themselves as “power users” while having not the first idea how the machine they’re holding works. (You can’t even catch a glimpse of the iOS file system without special tools that Apple would prefer you not to know about.)

Anyway, here’s the passage that announces what Mendelson is primarily concerned to reflect on:

Many probing and intelligent books have recently helped to make sense of psychological life in the digital age. Some of these analyze the unprecedented levels of surveillance of ordinary citizens, others the unprecedented collective choice of those citizens, especially younger ones, to expose their lives on social media; some explore the moods and emotions performed and observed on social networks, or celebrate the Internet as a vast aesthetic and commercial spectacle, even as a focus of spiritual awe, or decry the sudden expansion and acceleration of bureaucratic control.

The explicit common theme of these books is the newly public world in which practically everyone’s lives are newly accessible and offered for display. The less explicit theme is a newly pervasive, permeable, and transient sense of self, in which much of the experience, feeling, and emotion that used to exist within the confines of the self, in intimate relations, and in tangible unchanging objects—what William James called the “material self”—has migrated to the phone, to the digital “cloud,” and to the shape-shifting judgments of the crowd.

So that’s the big picture. We shall return to it. But for now I want to focus on something in Mendelson’s analysis that I question — in part out of perverse contrarianism, and in part because I have recently been spending a lot of time with a smartphone. Mendelson writes,

Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen.

In response to this vivid metaphor, let me propose a thought experiment: suppose there were no smartphones, and you were walking down the streets of a city, and the people around you were still looking down — but rather than at a screen, at letters from loved ones, and colorful postcards sent by friends from exotic locales? How would you describe such a scene? Would you think of those people as the lurching undead?

I suspect not. But why not? What’s the difference between seeing communications from people we know on paper that came through the mail and seeing them on a backlit glass screen? If we were to walk down the street of a city and watch someone tear open an envelope and read the contents, looking down, oblivious to her surroundings, why would we perceive that scene in ways so unlike the ways we perceive people looking with equal intensity at the screens of their phones? Why do those two experiences, for so many of us as observers and as participants, have such radically different valances?

I leave these questions as exercises for the reader.


  • I wonder if part of the reason stems from the fact that initially this behavior was seen in youth. There is a tendency to look down on whatever youth culture is infatuated with. The fact that smartphone use has become more of a societal norm is (relatively) recent and hasn't had a chance to rewrite this bias yet.

  • For me, I think it might be that people who are looking at their phones seem to be "somewhere else". The phone takes them away from where they are, and I sense that they are at best uncomfortable, and at worst, disdain where they are physically located. The postcard (to use your example) comes to you. The phone is someone trying to get away.

  • I suspect we would think of such postcard-engrossed populations as the lurching undead, if postcards had that effect on people. Moreover, that most people lost in their smartphones are absorbed in "communications from people [they] know" strikes me as an inordinately optimistic proposition.

  • Perhaps the difference is that a smartphone is an extension of the self in a way that a letter never can be. When you see someone walking around with their attention on their phone, you assume (usually rightly) that this degree of attention is permanent, since their phone is the locus of the self as defined by the curated network of relationships permanently stored on it. This network--the person walking with it seems to be saying--is the real world, and I'm just acting out my usual place in it.

    The letter, on the other hand, is more of an intrusion into the real world. It may seem to its reader to be infinitely more interesting than the physical world around him, but it can't sustain that degree of attention for more than maybe half an hour. Unlike the phone, it does not change as the self changes, although its understood meaning might. Even if you make a closer analogy to, say, a steady stream of letters, the phone still exponentially trumps the extent and speed to which you can modify the network of relationships, and thereby the content of their communications, in order to accommodate the self.

  • What would be the difference if you saw someone not reading a letter as they walk down the street but, pen and paper in hand, writing a letter?

    For me, the answer to these great reflection questions has to do with presence. In the example of reading a letter, the point at which the connection is bridged is much closer to the walking/reading person. With smartphones (and with the example of writing a letter) the point where the connection is bridged can be much further away, as can be a good chunk of their presence.

  • Great question. My thought about this is that we are all in fact extremely sophisticated in picking up cues and making inferences about others' reading. I noticed this first in a classroom in which every member of the seminar had a copy of the novel being discussed- some from the library, a couple older versions, but mostly copies of a recently published translation- except for one member, who had an e-reader. This placed him subtly but unmistakably at a greater distance from the conversation. The reason why, I think, was that all the others were unintentionally signaling to each other that they were attending to the same book- that is, we could all see the covers of each others' books as we were talking (we sat around a single table). But the e-reader sent no such signal. It's blank, black 'cover' told us nothing about what that student was paying attention to. It's not that I suspected he was really on Facebook; rather, our interaction lacked that subtle visual implicit support I'd gotten so used to in class- the physical book as a (perhaps deceptive!) signal of a shared object of attention.

    In the postcard case, I'd want to think through what signals and what inferences I unconsciously make about the postcard reader. Postcards are a bit antiquated, so there has been special effort devoted to producing (and reading) the postcard. They are one-to-one communications- it's hard to send a group postcard. They are extremely unlikely to be anonymous. Since they come from travelers, they often are lighthearted, even happy (and probably not overjoyed or serious). That our reader is reading many at once means that he has kept and collected these documents of a loved one's journey, and is probably re-reading them. Why? Out of nostalgia? In memorium? Again, it's not that I know that the online reader is *not* re-reading a set of personal, lighthearted missives from a loved one. Rather, I have no signals that he is, and this blankness reads as 'zombie.'

    In a cafe, one coffee-drinker reads a fat MCAT-prep book. Another has a faded old midcentury paperback. Another has a recent, well-known and well-reviewed novel. Another has a journal. We know, or think we know, so, so much about what each of these people are up to. But in the case of the coffee-drinker reading a phone, we know that we don't know.

  • I don't think there is any big objective difference.

  • I wonder whether it's a matter of perceived frivolity and/or immaturity when it comes to phones--that the appropriate analogues are less letters from loved ones and postcards from exotic places and more notes passed in class and MASH games. Whether that perception comes from seeing one too many pieces of clickbait, from the early and rapid adoption of smartphone tech and apps by youth, or from some loose association of phones with earlier handheld video games, I don't know.

    I also wonder whether a street full of people with their noses in e-readers would be raise the same ire as the smartphone undead...

  • I think the two activities _do_ have different valences. Form and content interact in specific ways: to read texts or emails on a cell phone while walking down the street is, for most people, to read (or type) something very brief. (I deduce this from the fact that when I write email letters of ~150 words, broken into paragraphs no less, people tease me about "writing a novel"; apparently most people do not use email this way.) A letter, on the other hand, is usually something more substantive, more thoughtfully composed, more revealing. (Interesting that most of the comments above refer to postcards rather than letters.) I would propose an analogy: people often walk the streets of my city munching some food or glugging some drink. Is there a difference between eating on the run and sitting down to a dinner? Is the experience of drinking-while-walking different from sipping something from a cup seated at a cafe? I'd say yes, and that the experience of reading a letter from a friend on paper differs from the experience of reading one's phone in many of the same ways (level of sensory alertness to what one is doing, state of mind, and so forth).

  • Going by my wife's use of Facebook, you have to imagine someone holding an enormous stack of postcards, magazines, comics, letters, and other ephemera, standing by a trash can, and flicking paper after paper into the rubbish. She works through the stack as quickly as possible, without showing much interest or excitement; if you judged by her expression alone, you'd take the activity to be a duty rather than a diversion--though occasionally she smiles at a note from a friend, or selects a favorite cartoon and puts it in her pocket.

    Going by my own use, you have to imagine a creepy hoarder carrying around a shopping cart of newspaper clippings, few of which he ever manages to read. His expression conveys irritation, not delight.

    Despite the grimness of these images, I do strongly endorse the use of smartphones while traveling, as described in your earlier post. Actually, I'd say the smartphone truly comes into its own in the hands of a person in transit--as a research tool, as a timekiller, as a link to loved ones left behind. If we all put down our phones on entering a building and picked them up again when leaving, we might find ourselves less bothered by their flaws.

  • I believe that at one level there really isn't any difference. But it is more the frequency of access. If someone was always walking around reading letters or postcards then I believe they would be viewed as strange or not connected to the world around them. Both activities remove people from interaction with the immediate world around them. I remember when in college in the late 80's a fellow student started walking around campus with his walkman. I know I thought that he was being rude because it appeared that he was tuning out those around him in preference to listening to music. I believe it is the same reaction when people are looking at smartphones all of the time.

  • For starters, not a lot of people read postcards or letters or books while walking down crowded sidewalks (though there was an English professor in college who was famous for walking his two-mile commute to school without ever looking up from his book... which is not probably very healthy, but conveys his great attentiveness and dedication rather than the iPhone, which conveys/creates distraction and a lack of sustained attention). Or while driving--though some do.

    We tend to save letters and postcards for a time when we can focus on and savor those things exclusively.

    Another thought experiment: what if a group of friends came over for dinner and drinks... and a few of them brought over letters and postcards... and whenever there was a lull in the group conversation, eyes would furtively (or blatantly, as the case may be) drift from the conversation at hand to the letter or postcard in the lap?

  • "How would you describe such a scene? Would you think of those people as the lurching undead?

    I suspect not. But why not? What’s the difference between seeing communications from people we know on paper that came through the mail and seeing them on a backlit glass screen?"

    I'm not sure this is the most helpful approach to an analysis of the situation. Why not ask, instead, for those of us old enough to remember, "Did we, indeed, see people carrying about in this way with letters, postcards, books, etc.?" Occasionally, I'm sure; perhaps we might even say rarely. And in such cases for how long and how often? We didn't react in the same way because we had no occasion to, if my memory serves. So, then, we can ask why that is the case?

    It seems the implicit focus in these questions is the content. The "seeing" is of "communication from people we know," and it is the constant; what changes is the medium. I'm not sure this framing does justice to the materiality of the medium and how it calls forth different forms of engagement and creates novel possibilities of use -- it's ubiquity and virtual limitless, for example. Regarding the latter, the letter comes to an end; the postcard does so even sooner. The content of a smartphone goes on and on and on. Regarding the former, I don't remember carrying about with me, at all times, a hoard of letters, boxes of photographs, reams of boardgames, stacks of maps and atlases, etc. This ubiquity and seeming limitlessness alone marks the two experiences as vastly different.

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