Sunday, October 14, 2012

Present in Presence

To those living in cities with high usage of smartphones, this may be a common sight:

A group of friends, eating together, but busily typing on their phones. Taking pictures of each other, smiling to the small, built-in camera. Quickly going back to their phones, posting the pictures on the social media space they're part of. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Path. They would periodically check their phones, sometimes typing away as their friend is talking - half listening, half nodding, half-everything.

Now. Think about billboards. As we're stuck in traffic, how much waste of unnecessary advertising blinking before our eyes. Some billboards are even moving images. Products we don't need, lifestyles that don't make us any happier or fulfilled. We train ourselves to ignore them, block out noise. We desensitise ourselves.

This noise block reminds me of putting on headphones to block out car honks and people yelling. It reminds me of scrolling down my Twitter timelines, feeling claustrophobic reading dozens of people reporting what they're eating, where they are, replying to mentions with 'OK'. Like ignoring commercial during TV breaks.

Our attention span becomes shorter, easily diverted because if we don't train ourselves to block out noise, we would be overwhelmed with unusable information (how does one respond to a headline saying 'Bieber publicist: Stolen laptop tweet not hoax' that is mentally healthier than self-induced amnesia?). This poor attention span relates to that friend typing away on their smartphone a second after they asked how we are, nodding away while they give us half-attention over our half-explanation.

It made me think about the notion of 'present'. And this is when I give you my disclaimer of 'bear with me now I will soon go into a very boring monologue'.

'Western' civilisation has taught us with the concept of linear time. Past, present, future. There's a desire of fixity, of predictability. Hearing 'Can we meet on 6 pm' is so much more reliable than 'Meet around Magrib?'. Our activities become planned according to our predictions of what will happen in the future. From our television news programmes to our 10-year career plans and our children's education. Anything else that doesn't fall into that fixity, we block out. Like commercials, like billboards, like trivial Tweets.

Compare this with the Inuits who centre their lives around activities, particularly hunting. A father teaches his son on patience while waiting for a prey to come, for nature always gives as needed. They hunt as they need to survive and do not believe in accumulation and savings. Consequently, the notion of greed is void in such culture. It is considered offensive to ask 'May I have a glass of water' to an Inuit. They do not see food as property. It is no one's. Everyone's. The winnings of a hunt, for instance, is not the property of the hunter - it is shared throughout the community. No half-attention span, no greed, no accumulation of property to be happy and secure.

Sounds like a good life, eh?

I then reflected on how my own smartphone, my own noise-blocking, my own concept of time and 'present' have left impressions on my mind and mentality. Have I ever checked my phone as my son was calling me? Yes. Have I ever interacted superficially with strangers on Twitter? Yes. Have I ever sat on a table during dinner and participated in an interaction where everyone was typing on their smartphones? Also yes.

It isn't about (negative) technological determinism. Some of my most meaningful friendships were cultivated through long distance communication. Mediated interaction does not always mean meaningless exchanges. It is about being present or listening, not about timeliness. Answering instantly.

It is about when we are relating to another human being, a friend, our children, our loved ones, we are in that moment - not blocking out a single thing. Our whole being, is being there. 

It is something we sense when we read a book to our children and kiss the top of their heads. It is the sense we get when reading that long email we received from an old friend living abroad. Or when we shut our phones off before the plane takes off, close our eyes, and enjoy that moment of utter silence.

It is about feeling and being. 

And I realise, now, more than ever, how we have let the overabundance of information and the multiple features made available by technology take that away from us.

So I have uninstalled all of the social media applications from my own smartphone. I have stopped my push emails, so that I don't read a work-related email on a Saturday during lunch with family. When I am ready and focused, I check my emails and respond to my colleagues (and sometimes also during a weekend, as I also sometimes have a family day on a workday!). 

It's isn't about the technology or the mediated space of social media. But doing it when we choose to, not just because it arrives on our doorstep. Interacting when we know we can read properly and not half-critically respond just for the sake of instantaneity (this noun does exist! Check Merriam-Webster).

It reminds me a bit of Fromm's 'freedom from' and 'freedom to (Escape from Freedom, 1941). For Fromm, 'freedom from' (I think there are some parallels with 'escaping') is to free oneself from social conventions. Like an oppressed Catholic student who turned into a liberal feminist, or the exact opposite, a born-again Muslim turning to religion because of culture shock living in a 'Western' country. It becomes a kind of 'religious conversion' or jumping ships, being scared and finding sanctum. I don't think moderating information exposure is about running away from social conventions. About leaving mediated social interactions or not accessing information. It's about 'freedom to'. To decide for ourselves what kind of person we would like to be, what makes us whole and content. And in that, it includes some features of the 'thing we were 'running from'' (pardon the multiple quotes). I choose to be present in presence. And in that, I will choose what information I invite into my own mind, and I do not escape information altogether.

I may disagree with her policies, but this quote by Margaret Thatcher is pristine (in my defence, I see Meryl Streep mouthing it in the Iron Lady):

Watch your thoughts for they become words. 
Watch your words for they become actions. 
Watch your actions for they become habits. 
Watch your habits, for they become your character. 
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny! 
What we think we become.

Have a happy Sunday! Toodles.