Thesis #73

Technology is the art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it

This thesis was once formulated, I believe, by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. It’s been a perceptive observation about communication technologies for many years. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, for example, the composer John Philip Sousa complained that it represented the death of music. Before Edison’s invention, he argued, the only way to experience music was either to make it yourself or to be in the presence of others who were making it. Until Edison stepped in, music had been inextricably bound up with performance. After Edison it would be predominately associated with consumption — buying and listening to recordings.

Eastman Kodak’s conversion of photography from a specialised professional activity into a consumer capability represented another step along the flight from experience. “Kodak moments” were advertised as particular events in everyday lives which warranted memorialising. And visitors to the Grand Canyon — one of the most awe-inspiring experiences available on the North American continent — suddenly found that particular vantage-points had been marked out as suitable points from which to take photographs.

This flight from experience has become pathological since mobile phones were equipped with reasonably high-spec cameras which can record both stills and video. Visit any famous heritage site on the planet and what you find now are legions of people with selfie-sticks who seem incapable of absorbing the uniqueness of the location and are obsessed instead with simply photographing themselves with the location as background.

The most vivid example I can remember is the Saturday evening some years when the Rolling Stones played at the Glastonbury Festival. This was one of the epochal moments in popular music: one of the greatest rock bands in the world playing — probably for the last time, given the band-members’ ages — at one of the world’s premier music festivals. The audience for the gig was huge. And yet as one listened and watched all one could see was a forest of mobile phones held aloft. In this unique historical moment it seemed that almost nobody was just standing there, listening and watching, absorbing the moment, drinking it in.

Further reading

Alex Ross, “The Record Effect: How technology has transformed the sound of music”, New Yorker, 6 June, 2005.

Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin, 2016.

Franklin Foer, World without Mind, Jonathan Cape, 2017.

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