My final project is going to analyze the ways in which smartphones have changed the way people spend their time. Every Sunday I get a notification that tells me the average number of hours I spent on my phone each day of the week. I’m always surprised and little ashamed when I see that I spend about 3 hours on my phone every day. And when I’m not on my phone, it’s often because I’m looking at some other screen, either my laptop or television. Even when I’m with my friends or working, I might still be focused on an electronic device. This idea makes me wonder if everybody is spending a similar amount of time on their devices, and if so, how it’s changing humanity.
When I commute every day in New York City, it saddens me to look around the subway car and see nearly every person looking down at their phones with headphones in their ears. It seems like everyone is tuning out the reality around them, and I think this new physical immersion in the digital space is both harmful to the essence of being human, and it’s only going to get worse. It isn’t hard to imagine that in a few decades, instead of looking down at our phones, we will be able to physically enter a virtual reality and be whoever we want to be, interacting with others much like how we already do via texting, FaceTime, and other modes of communication. But I wonder what the human desire to escape in our devices from reality says about the world today. And is the world worse off by making it so easy to escape boredom. If all of our free time is spent scrolling through instagram or watching Netflix, who will be present to step up and make the world a better place? I fear that one day we’ll either voluntarily enter some world similar to the matrix, or we’ll live like the humans in WALL-E.
On Thursday, February 7th, I had the opportunity to attend a screening at the High Museum as part of their Film Love series. We went on a journey of film through time, beginning with some early shorts by the Lumière Brothers, who are often credited with giving birth to modern cinema. The Lumière shorts were actually filmed in the 1890s in Lyon, France, where I lived for year. It was fascinating to see what Lyon looked like over a hundred years ago. Even after how much the world has changed in the 20th century, I could still recognize buildings and streets where I made my own memories many years later. It really helped me appreciate the power of film to bring images to life. I’ve seen countless black and white photos of Lyon in the past, but none of them resonated with me in the way the films did, with crowds of people living life and experiencing the passage of time in the bustling city streets.
After one Lumière film from the point of view of the front of a train traveling through the countryside, a present-day digital film was screened of a group of longboarders rolling down a mountain, from the point of view of a go-pro on one of their helmets. This provided a great contrast, allowing me to see how although the way we capture video has changed over time, the essential elements of film have always been present. After the transition to the modern, we also watched an artistic film of two glass panels alternating between 8 colors for 25 minutes. I had mixed feelings about that one. At one point, someone got up and left, then returned 10 minutes later and asked loudly “what did I miss?” causing everyone in the audience to laugh. Then, an old projector was set up, chairs were taken away, and fog machines were turned on. The host of the event asked the audience to gather around the beam of light that was beginning to form from the projector to the wall. At first, I didn’t think this was anything special, although a pleasant break from the usual format of screenings. I watched the dot on the wall in anticipation of whatever was about to happen. Then, slowly, the dot began to move, tracing its path and drawing a circle. That’s when I realized that the projection on the wall was irrelevant, and that the main focus should be on the light itself. Over the course of 30 minutes, as the fog filled the room and the beam of light evolved into a cone, and people began putting body parts and objects into it to create their own illusions. I realized that I was witnessing something pretty unique. Was this a film? Was this an experiment? A game? I’m not sure, but I liked it. And the same magic that caused the audience to run out of the theater during the first Lumière screening of a train entering a station, caused me to inspect and play with that barely-changing cone of light in utter wonder for a full half-hour, and be disappointed when it was over. There’s definitely something special about film.
Over the course of the semester I’m going to follow the New York Times. I’ve been reading The Times since I was 8 years old and I maintain a digital subscription. I already try to keep up with the news because I care a lot about what’s going on in the world and being informed, so I look forward to continuing that in this blog and making even more connections by looking deeper into these current events.
This week, Mike Isaac wrote an article headlined Apple Shows Facebook Who Has the Power in an App Dispute. The article describes a clash between Facebook and Apple that began when Facebook released a research app that violated Apple’s privacy terms. In response, Apple revoked Facebook’s access to various iPhone features, causing the company to panic briefly and remove the app. This article made me think about the role of power in the digital world today. Typically, we see these giant technology companies as one and the same, offering different products and services, but similar at the core. However, this Apple/Facebook dispute reveals Apple’s advantage over Facebook. Now that Facebook is primarily a mobile social network accessed by phones, and Apple has nearly a 50% market share on phones in the United States, Apple has a great deal of control over Facebook. If Apples disagrees with something Facebook does, Apple can literally crush them. In other realms of the tech industry, this problem is similarly pervasive. Many companies rely on other companies for their platform to exist. It kind of traces back to Lee Manovich’s There is Only Software essay, in that so many of the companies and digital media platforms owe their existence to some other bigger company, who owes its existence to another company, tracing its roots all the way back to the original company that wrote the code and software that made it all possible. In technology, perhaps there aren’t a a dozen or so titans; perhaps there are only two or three.
Building a website is harder than I thought it would be. I built a website on square space, but I think I had much more artistic liberty in deciding what to turn it into. I find that here on WordPress, what I write in these blog posts are more important, and I have to somehow find a way to turn everything I add to this site into a coherent chunk of meaningful expression.
It’s interesting, writing in real time, I feel as though I’m being absorbed into this concept of “Digital Media & Culture.” It’s like how I imagine it would be to try skydiving for the first time: You drive to whatever airport the plane is flying out from. You have a 20 minute orientation covering general safety and liability. Then you and the plane go up and there’s no turning back. Here, lectures and class are like the orientation. An explanation of the thing we can’t really understand unless you’re actually in it. Writing these blog posts for class forces us to jump into what we are studying, and pay attention to how we’re relating to it academically. Instead seeing this interaction with media in the way I see scrolling through facebook or instagram, I find myself paying attention to the medium and my relationship to it, and how the idea of sharing thoughts digitally and publically has changed the world forever.