Wednesday, March 31, 2010

GPS Chatter

I wonder if Matilda talks to The Bitch.  Matilda, as you may recall, is my GPS.  I have a friend who calls hers “The Bitch,” as in “You better listen to the bitch, she knows how to get there.”  As I drove into work this morning I fell to wondering about what Matilda is doing when she is not telling me “In point five miles take the ramp to I-540 East. Then stay right.”  Sometimes I wonder if she is talking to The Bitch:

Matilda:  “I mean if he is just going to turn whenever he wants why turn me on to begin with?”

The Bitch: “Tell me about it.  Yesterday my human said she wanted to go to the mall and then just drove to the grocery store.  I’m squawking my head off, and she just cranks up the radio! Geez, what a bitch!”
Another image reveals a bunch of folks who didn’t quite make the cut to be air-traffic controllers sitting in a room full of monitors.  Each one has a couple of dozen little cars running around on their screens.  If they click on a car a script pops up: “British Female Voice: In point five miles take the ramp to I-540 East. Then stay right.” They read the script, with appropriate accent, into a microphone.  And there is a big red button right by their mouse that says “Recalculating.”  They keep hitting it, over and over and over.

I know it doesn’t work that way – what bothers me is that I really have no idea how it does work.  When Matilda says “Acquiring Satellite” is she, like, watching me?  How does she know when I turn off her desired path?  And when she always tells me to turn the wrong way on E. Durham Road?  What’s going on there? Coffee break?  Potty call? Talking to The Bitch?

I probably don’t really want to know .  .  .  .

Friday, March 5, 2010

Deserted Campus

It was what passes for a winter’s day here in the South.  A few inches of snow clung forlornly to bushes and iron railings.  Birds huddled disconsolately on telephone wires, debating, no doubt, the wisdom of winging off to Florida. I coasted into the parking garage across a thin sheen of slush, pulled the laptop out of the trunk and, clutching my coffee, headed inside to videotape my class lecture.

Maybe it was the paucity of cars that first tickled my antennae, but it really struck me when I left the garage to make my way through the little park that sits between the large brick office buildings – there was no one around.  There were lights in windows, the heating and AC units tucked in behind the shrubs hummed away – but there were no people.  It was all very “rapturesque.”

Soon a few other left-behind slackers joined me on the way to the elevator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone.  I was whisked up to the 5th floor where I walked into the studio, checked the lights, set the camera, fired up the computer, and sat down to talk to my students – out there somewhere.  Mind you, I actually like this kind of teaching.  It feels far more personal than the evolving norm - standing before a couple hundred students in a high-tech classroom, fighting Facebook for attention.  When I talk to my students in the studio I know that the student on the other side of the lens is there because they have chosen to be there.  They are actually listening.  That is very cool.

But it doesn’t fully assuage my uneasy feeling of a deserted campus, of an increasingly vacated world where social relationships play out in digitized worlds creepingly devoid of physical human interaction.  It may be a generational notion.  Boomers – the fastest growing demographic group on Facebook – use digital spaces primarily to maintain or re-establish relations that were initiated in a face-to-face world.  But X-ers, Y-ers, Millennials, etc., define an evolution of intimacy moving increasingly toward the purely digital.  My wife has two-year old grand-nieces who regularly Skype with their grandparents – and on the children’s end the interface is a large flatscreen hi-def TV.  Shades of Star Trek: Nana is a hologram. The dominant venue for the relationship is digital.

A colleague and I, in a far too rare face-to-face chat, wondered how long it would be before digital versus face-to-face became a quaint distinction overwhelmed by the hegemony of converged interaction.  Second Life as Real Life, avatar as actuality.  I wonder if my unease with the notion is purely the case of a generation on the cusp – 20th century man bemused by 21st century implications.

Somehow, Patricia MacLachlan’s Newbery Medal winning novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall, comes to mind.  Sarah is a mail order bride who arrives in Minnesota in 1910 to become a wife to Jacob and mother to Anna and Caleb.  The book describes a series of relationships that began in a newspaper ad and moved into “snail mail” letters, all written words – the Internet of the early 1900s.  But the relationships could not become “real” until they were played out face-to-face; until they were actualized by physicality. 

I wonder to what extent our love-affair with social media is de-valuing that physicality?  If I can interact with lots of my friends simultaneously on Facebook, does that reduce my inclination to actually go have coffee with one or two of them.  And further, if I have never met someone face-to-face, perhaps never even seen a real photo of a cyber-friend in Second Life, would the idea of a physical meeting even occur?  Obviously in romantic relationships where an intimate future, marriage, family, etc., is the object, physicality remains imperative.  But what about all those other relationships in which the physical is tangential? What happens there? Is a digital hug OK if your entire relationship has been conducted in virtual worlds? I really don’t know.

And a final thought: Much has been made of the notion of the digital divide, of the differences among those who have access to robust digital media and those who do not.  Imagine the complexity of rapprochement between segments of society who literally experience “reality” differently.

I left the studio and headed back to my car.  Outside of the thoroughly wired and “wi-fi-ed” tower of brick and glass and steel, a mix of rain and sleet gusted across the plaza.  There were more hardy souls about now as Southerners ventured out into the “terrible weather.”  I pulled my head down into my collar.  Brrrrrr.  Felt human, felt good.