Heads Down: Myth, Meaning, Mobility

Dec 13, 2018

Heads down, staring at screens has now become the unofficial icon of our anxiety about the mobile age. It was only four years ago that the 2014 National Geographic Photography Contest Grand Prize went to Hong Kong photography Brian Yen for his eerie image of a woman at the center of a train car alone in this head-bent pose. As the rest of the passengers’ faces were in all different states of idle staring, conversation, stupor, this petite young lady was illuminated staring at her screen and notably apart from the human tumult.

Four years later we love to notice and complain about the heads-down pall that has “afflicted” the American landscape. Our social spaces—mall courts, city streets, waiting rooms—often seem like collections of bent heads, visually akin to but in mockery of communal prayer.

This fear that technology dislocates us from one another, that it encourages a self-absorbed removal from community and sociability, is as old as America itself. At some primal American level, seas of heads-down citizens ignoring one another run against our own deeply held fantasies about a connected body politic. This level of mass alienation feels unhealthy. And let’s be clear. This feeling is fed by a sentimental nostalgia for some golden age of interaction that is fantastic and silly. Get real. Generations have been raised staring at TV screens, immersed in video games, or habitually avoiding eye contact on any city street. Alienation within the crowd is one of our oldest tropes. Have you read Moby Dick lately? Watched a Western?

Critics target as socially harmful only those personal technologies they find vaguely distasteful or unfamiliar while they notably exclude others. We never respond to images of masses of people reading newspapers in public or nose-down in their own books at libraries as dire signs of alienation. Our hand-wringing about the social costs of mobile gadgetry is as selective and myopic as it ultimately unhelpful in understanding the phenomenon that is mobile.

And it is a phenomenon. As early as 2012, an MIT Technology Review piece showed that TV was the only prior technology to move from 10% to 40% penetration in the US as quickly as smartphones. Even more remarkable was that the surge took place during a deep recession (compared to TV’s rise in a post-war boom) and that this tech indicated individual as opposed to household adoption.

In my mind, technologies do not reach that level of adoption that quickly for trivial reasons—simply because they are fun, or even because they offer new convenience. Yes, eventually, the market was driven somewhat by an expectation of persistent presence that was foisted upon many of us by family, friends, and employers. But we have to keep in mind that Americans adopted this non-essential technology at considerable expense. And mobile phones really did not solve some longstanding, commonly understood problem. In the early days, most of us regarded this technology as silly affectations of the affluent to affect public shows of professional busyness. Many of us dug in and resisted going mobile, eschewing the need for persistent connectivity.

No, it strikes me that we need to go deeper into our cultural moment to understand why so many of us embraced with our time, attention, and treasure a gadget that we really didn’t need in a practical sense.

I suspect that mobile connectivity has had such fast wide appeal because personal “connectivity” and the forms that the smartphone takes go to the heart of that very American tension between self and society that is ever-present in our history but also heightened at moments of extreme structural change. 

MIT Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, Sherry Turkle, was on to this idea a number of years ago. When she interviewed some of the earliest MIT testers of always-on mobile computing in the 90s. They reported enjoying feeling like “new selves” via personal connected devices. They felt somehow enhanced, empowered, better prepared (p. 224, Alone Together). Speaking of connectivity generally, Turkle posited that this new digital space “offers new possibilities for experimenting with identity… .” (p226) Adolescents were especially drawn to this free space for identity play because in some sense that is precisely what adolescence is about—identity experimentation.

But this sense of identity play takes place on overt and subtle levels. There has always been much talk about avatars and many (often younger) users taking on altered or enhanced selves in role-playing games. But you don’t need to be a nerdy 16-year-old who goes by the online Orc persona of SoulCrusher666 to appreciate the shape-shifting appeal of mobile connectivity. Connected life also makes available subtler forms of identity play such as the little performances we put on in our social feeds, Our Twitter-self may share erudite commentary, in part to demonstrate our elevated taste. Our Instagram-self (the home of the “selfie”, after all) may be a space to highlight some other mood or mode in which we want to be seen. Our email self is likely much less performative and more professional. And our dating app self, well, that is a whole other level of performative art, isn’t it?

And of course, this idea of a public performative self is nothing new either. Sociologist Erving Goffman literally wrote the book on the theatricality of our social personas in his provocative treatise The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life in 1956.

All of which is to remind us that our hand-wringing and anxiety over mobility desperately needs some contextualization. Digital media and connectivity, and the genres they spawned like games, social feeds, messaging, dating, etc., allow us to flit across a range of personal performances, at the very least different modes of our selves and perhaps even imagine the new and different ways we need to connect to a culture and society in radical flux.

The root question here is really not what these technologies purportedly are “doing to us,” in part because it is unanswerable except as an occasion to exercise our prejudices. Instead, perhaps we should be both creating and critiquing our new mobile, digital media with a different question in mind. What are we doing to and with it? What do the social formats, games, apps, and modes of digital interactivity we embrace say about how we want to connect (or not) with one another in early 21st Century America?

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