(Notes for the lecture delivered at the seminar on “The Changing Media Landscape” organized by the Department of Visual Communication, Loyola College & St. Pauls Institute of Communication Education, Mumbai, at Loyola College, Chennai, on December 20, 2017.)
In preparing for this talk I happened to stumble upon a novel titled, “I lost my mobile at the mall – Teenager on the edge of technological breakdown” by Wendy Harmer. It claims to be a novel for teens, published in Australia in 2009.
The “novel” begins with the following words:
“My name is Elly Pickering. I’ve lost my mobile phone at the mall and am now facing certain death.”
The character Elly then goes on to list the reasons for her purported “certain death”. I am summarising them in my own words as follows:
- My mother will kill me by cursing.
- My father will kill me by falling silent and showing disappointment.
- My girl friend will kill me for the mobile has a photo of her and her boy friend sent to me by her BF by mistake on the first night they got together.
- My BF will kill me because I lost my handbag with the mobile, the first present he gave me.
- I will kill myself because, all my numbers, texts and photos of one year are lost with the mobile.
This is how the novel starts and captures the “mentality of the times” of the youngsters.
Evoking death immediately brings to our mind the innumerable tales of our times on the “selfie craze” of teenagers – the recklessness of youngsters who fell off from this or that spot attempting to take selfies.
Horror and aversion about the “selfie culture” is the widespread general reaction of almost all sections of the society, especially the media.
This also seems to be the general way of reaction, whenever a new invention or innovation becomes the craze of the youngsters. One can cite many such similar reactions from the annals of history, and one striking parallel was almost the same kind of alarm and aversion expressed when the photography camera became light and mobile – when the point and shoot camera flooded the market and became the craze of youngsters, women and the masses.
I will return to this parallel towards the end, but first I would like to mention three points I wish to bring to attention in this short note am sharing with the audience.
- Miniaturization and
-three phenomena that have risen as inevitable consequences of the digital age in general and the cultural rupture that we are witnessing with the arrival of smartphones.
These three phenomena are closely inter-woven and augment each other, and their effects on our societies have already drawn the attention of scholars from various disciplines.
For now, I shall limit with a few observations of mine here on these three points, though I wish to qualify that these observations are of an amateur, tinkering and playing with thoughts and observations drawn from scholars working with dedication in various disciplines.
By externalization, here I wish to draw attention to what I would like to call as “the “externalization of memory”.
Memory as such, is a function of biological organisms – the function of brain as we know it in simple terms. Evolutionary biologists and Universal Darwinists would say that our DNAs are also memory banks of generations past. Also, for the living organisms, memory is time – time past, which we fleetingly remember in moments of the present.
We humans, in particular were incapable of capturing and freezing memory in our living present. Memory has to pass. It can stay only for moments.
But it was so in the past, until the recent past.
With the onset of the digital age, with the coming of age of computers, memory has been externalized (writing as such is an externalization of memory about which vast philosophical exegeses exist since Plato).
We now have memory banks, ROMs, RAMs, hard disks in our computers, in external hard disks, cds, dvds, pen drives, and now tiny memory cards which mention their capacities in terms of “internal memory” and “external memory” in our mobiles in our pockets.
We can read – recollect memory now. We measure memory now, in terms of giga bytes.
Digital age has enabled us humans to externalize memory, measure memory and spatialize memory – memory is now available in spatial dimensions – in hard disks and memory cards. More than the spatialization or memory, the point we have to take note of is the “measure” of memory – huge volumes in tiny containers – the consequences of which needs further rumination.
As a consequence, we can recall memory at our wish. But, more “radical” than this, we see “memories” appear before our eyes without even asking for.
Am referring to the “See your memories” that appear on-screen and grab our attention when we open our facebook accounts. We “see our memories” without us wishing for it, and we share those memories most of the times gleefully, surprisingly and sometimes sorrowfully.
The effect of this externalization of memory, and spatialization of memory, I wonder, can we say as “objectification of memory”? And how we are to grasp with the move towards “measuring memory”?
Our memory is thrust upon us by some odd algorithm of facebook, and we sharing “our memories” with our friends, friends of friends, and public options in the worldwide network of facebook is something unprecedented in human history.
One drastic consequence of this “objectification of memory” is what some observers have termed “augmented reality” – reality out of bound, out of proportions.
We all know, how we imagine that the posts and updates we write in our facebook accounts is being watched, taken note of by our known friends, friends of friends, unknown facebook friends, and by the “public” with no face.
The result is the augmentation of the culture of narcissism, the consequences of which are unknown yet.
Miniaturization – to be precise, the quest for miniaturization has been a recurring feature of almost every single invention, at least we can say with the advent of the modern age.
This quest for miniaturization is nothing but the desire for mobility, to the carry the cherished new object – the new invention with oneself most of the time. To carry it, when we are on the move and to display it to our peers, friends, and elders as a symbol of pride.
This happened to the radio which morphed into the transistor and then the walkman with radio, and now into our pockets the FM radio in our mobile phones.
This happened to the wall clock – the pendulum clock hanging on the walls of our living rooms morphed into the pocket watch, wrist watch, electronic wrist-watch with digitization, and now into our pockets in our mobile phones.
This happened to the photographic camera which was huge, with cumbersome to carry accessories – the early flash bulbs, the mounts etc., which morphed into the light weight point and shoot and cameras and later hot shot cameras.
This happened to the telephone – the big black weighty phone on a high table by the corner of the staircase which you might have seen in old Tamil movies. The lighter telephones that sat on the tables of executives in every office space, the wireless telephones which teared away the telephone from its fixity in the homes of the rich. Now, with the advent of the mobile phones and the more and more cheaper smart phones – the miniaturized version of telephone in our pockets.
The same with movie cameras – with the onset of digitization, we had the digital cameras of various sizes, yet bulky and still the possession of privileged few. And then came the tiny, cheap hand held digital cameras that proliferated film making by youngsters in good numbers.
The process of miniaturization has enabled two things: 1. Amateur production or to put in differently diversification and 2. Communication at both ends.
The FM Radio and the Television are still the points of broadcasting but have diversified into a number of private broadcasters and now almost always interact with audience through some channel – telephone calls, sms or whatsapp messages. The monopoly of one – way communication giving way to two – way communication is the significant change that happens with miniaturization.
There is a long list of inventions which have gone through this process of miniaturization, which some academics have listed, and called “the archaeology of inventions”.
Our concern here is not go into such an archaeological expedition, but to point to some cultural reactions accompanying such miniaturization of technical inventions, which brings us to the final point of my sharing here – internalization.
Miniaturization’s corelate is internalization.
Internalization occurs in two principal ways: 1. The miniaturized gadget is owned – possessed by the individual. Earlier it was owned by the family – the big black telephone in the corner of the living room, the pendulum clock that hung on the wall, the radio set on the shelf, the big television set in the hall were all possessions of the family. The walkman, the wrist watch, and the mobile phones are all cherished, stylized possessions of pride of the individual, of youngsters, and professionals. It is carried in the pockets of young men, handbags of women, often checked and touched with care and possessive instinct. It becomes a possession of us – internalized in that sense.
- It becomes internalized in another radical sense, especially in the case of mobile phones and smart phones. A comparison with the miniaturized point and shoot camera will drive the point.
With the point and shoot camera, photography was so simplified that anyone can shoot whatever she/he wished to. But the camera lens was always pointed to some external object. With the advent of smartphones, for the first time, the camera lens has turned inwards (the front camera) – towards oneself. A simple turn of the wrist and a high raise of the hand turns the camera lens onto oneself which is a radical turn that was still cumbersome with the point and shoot or even the much light weight hot shot photographic camera.
What made the difference?
With the light weight hot shot camera one had to take a snap by pressing one’s index finger. Turning the camera lens onto oneself and snapping the button with the index finger will inevitably be shaky.
Whereas, the smartphones’ design which enables it to be held firmly within the palm of the hand, the wrist which can turn with ease onto oneself, enabling triggering of the “click” with the much versatile thumb, the possibility of the camera lens turning towards the face of the holder of the camera flashed as a lightning. Hence the proliferation of selfies which was not there before its advent.
Whether this was a cunning design of the long study of ergonomics or an accident of design might surface later.
This internalization – a corollary of miniaturization has also created its own issues of radical concern.
- The aversion towards dissemination of an object that was once the possession of the privilege. Such reaction was the norm when the photographic camera morphed into point and shoot. That is what we are witnessing with the proliferation of selfies.
- With specific reference to the smartphone, the surveillance of big brothers – Big Data Business are spying into your emotions to sell their products. Ongoing researches on fine tuning smartphones are concentrated on reading your emotions, your finger touches on the touch screen.