Vicarious Life: Performing in the Fanopticon

In the first chapter of his 1992 book, Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles (Addison-Wesley), Donald Norman describes going to see a sixth-grade play in a relatively small auditorium. “If there had been only fifty parents present, it would have been crowded,” he writes. “But in addition to the parents, we had the video cameras.” Written some thirty years ago, this anecdote is well before the camera shrunk and merged with the mobile phone. Video cameras were cumbersome, and many didn’t yet run on batteries, hence his long-since gone concerns about space. He continues,

Ah yes, once upon a time there was an age in which people went to enjoy themselves, unencumbered by technology, with the memory of the event retained within their own heads. Today [1992] we use our artifacts to record the event, and the act of recording becomes the event.

Norman calls this need to record instead of paying attention “vicarious experiencing.” Echoing him many years later, the comedian Doug Stanhope used to do a joke about people recording his stand-up shows. As wireless networks and their bandwidth got broader and smartphones and their cameras got smaller, sharing experiences got easier and easier. Having always not only allowed but encouraged the sharing of his material online, Stanhope grew tired of people filming his performances, taking quotations out of context, as well as posting incomplete bits. “Hey, why don’t you just watch the show?” he asked. His mocking response: “Nah, I’d rather watch it on my laptop later.”

Drummer Brann Dailor is begging you to stop sharing. Photo by Jimmy Hubbard for Revolver Magazine during the recording of Mastodon’s Blood Mountain.

On the way to record their 2006 record, Blood Mountain, with the Seattle producer Matt Bayles, Atlanta metal band Mastodon test drove many of their new songs in front of live audiences across the country. It was the last opportunity they would have to do so. By the time they were ready to record their next record, 2009’s Crack the Skye, camera-enabled smartphones and easily uploaded video made it impossible to practice in public. No more sampling a song in front of a live audience lest a lesser version be shared with the world before it’s ready.

You know how it feels when your boss or best friend asks to see something you’re working on before it’s finished. You have to make excuses about every angle you were trying and every flaw you already know needs fixing. The unfinished can be a fragile state for the creative process, and the unfinished work is only shades of its future self at best. The unfinished opens the creator to questions that the finished version would never elicit.

Deftones and iPhones in Austin in 2011. Photo by Roy Christopher.

Consider the same situation for comedians like Stanhope above. Jokes have to be worked out in front of audiences. The only way to truly test the wording, the phrasing, the cadence of a set-up, and the optimal delivery of a punchline is to hear a live crowd react. There’s no way to do that if you run the risk of having every joke-in-progress recorded and posted online. And having an online audience hear all of your rough drafts diminishes the final version’s impact. Everyone loses.

The invisibility of communication networks coupled with the ubiquity of cameras and screens has collapsed contexts of all kinds. Call this one the Fanopticon. Our vicarious lives notwithstanding, the inability of live performers to practice in a semi-public arena is another unintended consequence of these collapsings.

Algorithm Nation

A few years ago, I was having lunch at a bar in Chicago when an Archers of Loaf song came on over the speakers. Excited, I told my partner what a big fan I am, about the first time I saw them at the Crocodile Café in Seattle, and that I saw them a dozen or so times during their first run in the 1990s, once even traveling up to Vancouver to see them play with Treepeople and Spoon. I told her how, fancying myself an indie-rock mogul, I had plans to put together a compilation of Chapel Hill bands, and they were the first to agree to contribute a song. And how I’d gotten to be pretty good friends with their bass player, Matt Gentling, how he’s also a rock climber, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years.

Matt Gentling, Arching the Loaf for ‘Fizz Magazine’ in 1994. If you look closely, you can see a “Front Wheel Drive” sticker on his bass. That was my zine at the time.

As we continued to eat, song after song of theirs came on. Now, as great as they are, the Archers are not a normal thing to hear in public, much less several of their songs in a row. I finally went up to the bar and asked who the Archers of Loaf fan was. No one knew what I was talking about. I explained the same thing I just explained to you, that hearing that many of their songs in a row wasn’t normal. The third person I asked said it was just a streaming service. Somehow the streaming service’s algorithm had gotten stuck on the Archers of Loaf catalog. Not a bad place to get stuck, as far as my lunch was concerned, but it still irked me that I was alone in the experience I was having.

Studies of the digital sharing of music call it “playlistism,” a subcultural ritual that reinforces the links between music and collective identity through the practice of sharing playlists. Assuming that we compile playlists to represent our identities, the sharing of them should show how we present ourselves through music. We didn’t use the old P2P networks to share in this traditional sense. In this way, playlists are more akin to analog mix tapes. We are what we like. In any form, when compiling and sharing our musical tastes, we go from saying, “I like this” to “I’m like this.” In the example above, there’s no one saying anything. Human agency is absent.

Music fans of a certain age belabor the pre-internet era, extolling the effort it took not only to find the good stuff but also to find out about it in the first place. We relied heavily on regionally curated spaces that are less and less influential now, where they exist at all. Local record stores, small weekly papers and zines, indie labels, narrowly focused radio shows, and tiny venues created community and shared knowledge. I do not lament the effort it took to find new music then, but the missed connections like my Archers of Loaf lunch don’t happen when you’re truly sharing an experience. It’s a loss that doesn’t matter to generations since because they never had it to lose. However, it’s one thing to be cut off from each other by choice. It’s entirely another when we don’t even choose it.

The sound that 1990s Seattle is known for seems to be the last historical exemplar that emerged from such a community, formed unfettered or influenced by outside forces. For example, the movement’s flagship label, Sub Pop, started as a zine, a compilation cassette series, and a column in The Rocket, one of Seattle’s local music papers. It was a special time and a special place. Not only did all of this happen in the time untainted by the internet, but the Pacific Northwest is also isolated geographically from the paths of nationally touring bands. I moved to Seattle in the summer of 1993, after the world knew about what was going on in the area, but before it peaked. When it was still what William Gibson would call a bohemia. As he told WIRED in 1995, “I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.” He continues:

Punk was the last viable bohemia that we’ve seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I’m afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we’re in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That’s scary. It’s possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it’s no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.

Hands all over… Soundgarden. Photo by Charles Peterson.

I put this question to Malcolm Gladwell years ago, who wrote about youth culture’s commodification in his bestselling 2001 book The Tipping Point, and he responded, “Teens are so naturally and beautifully social and so curious and inventive and independent that I don’t think even the most pervasive marketing culture on earth could ever co-opt them.” Gibson is not so optimistic, or he wasn’t in 1995. Here he talks about Seattle’s music scene, which by that time had had a very public and much-debated commercial co-opting:

Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that’s on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I’m sad to see the phenomenon disappear.

Perhaps this says more about where Gibson’s head was at the time than it does about the creativity of the youth. After all, we’ve seen plenty of cool things happen since 1995, and Gibson was writing Idoru (1996), one of his darker visions of modern culture, saturated with multi-channel, tabloid television and the rampant collecting of purchase data by unscrupulous marketers. Focus groups, surveys, and other ethnographical cool-hunting techniques farm information about users. At best, they seek to find out how people are using products, how they perceive brands, and what their desires are in order to market to and design for them better. At worst, they can seem invasive and downright icky, but they are where our wants wander into the manufactured world.

As these contexts collapse, we lose control of the processes, and we sometimes lose ourselves altogether. Thanks to some anonymous algorithm, I got to hear Archers of Loaf songs for a whole lunch hour one day. Maybe one of them was able to buy lunch themselves.

Audible Arrangements

When I was in the sixth grade, I was in a Vic-20 user’s group. I had a revved-up Commodore Vic-20 with an 8k-expansion cartridge and an external tape drive. Though floppy discs were available, we traded games and software via cassette tapes. There was this device at every meeting called “The Octopus.” It was a port replicator, and when we all plugged in our tape drives for copying multiple programs at once, it looked like a giant, electronic octopus.

I was a computer nerd way before it was cool. Me on an Apple II in The News Courier in Athens, Alabama at age 11.

Looking back at its long reign, the cassette tape is a strange piece of technology. It was horrible for software storage and retrieval. Indexing more than one program on a tape was nearly impossible. The only way to tell where one ended and the next started was by keeping note on the numbers of an unreliable analog counter. At least with music you could hear where the next song started.

The cassette tape, which was cued up in the 1960s to challenge the LP and the 8-track market as the musical format of choice, didn’t take off until it became hyper-mobile in 1979 thanks to the personal, portability of the Sony Walkman. High quality sound as such once required equipment too cumbersome to be carried. The cassette in concert with the Walkman gave everyone their own soundtrack. Their portability and customizability made them the personal electronic item. “The other big advantage of cassettes, of course, was that they were recordable,” Steven Levy elaborates, in an essay celebrating the thirty-year anniversary of the Walkman:

You’d buy blank 90-minute cassettes (chrome high bias, if you were an audio nut) and tape one album on each side. (Since most records were shorter than 45 minutes, you’d grab a song or two from another album to avoid a long dead spot before the tape reversed.) And you’d borrow albums from friends and tape your own. You could also tape from other cassettes, but the quality degraded each time you made a copy made from a copy. It was like an organic form of DRM. Everybody had a box with hand-labeled cassettes and before you went on a car trip, you’d dig in the box to find the tunes that would soundtrack your journey.


The magnetic tape was as much a part of the journey as the road. The portability and recordability of cassettes, of which all sounds so very labor-intensive now, made them the precursor to MP3s and iPods and today’s mobile streaming. Personal media, as opposed to mass media, may have been birthed by the book, but the cassette took it to a new level. Just as the book individualized the exchange of stories and information, the cassette tape and its attendant technologies individualized music listening. When the Walkman first came out, it was intended for sharing. The first models released had two headphone jacks. I distinctly remember the first one I listened to having dual jacks. Nevertheless, initial sales numbers indicated that few users were sharing their devices, so Sony retooled its approach. In the ads, Alex Weheliye writes that “couples riding tandem bicycles and sharing one Walkman were replaced by images of isolated figures ensnared in their private world of sound.” As William Gibson puts it,

The tape recorder was the first widely available instrument that allows you to manipulate media. I remember I bought the first Walkman I ever saw… I didn’t even have a tape recorder. I had to go and get someone to make me a tape. The experience of taking the music of your choice and being able to move it through the environment of your choice had just never been available. It felt weirdly subversive. I could walk through rush hour crowds listening to Joy Division at skull-shattering volumes (laughs)… Like you were having this completely different experience that was completely altering the way it all looked, and no one knew.

This source of secret sound, the black box of the personal stereo, is where its cultural meaning truly lies. “People who walk around with a Walkman might seem to signify a void, the emptiness of metropolitan life,” writes Iain Chambers, “but that little black object can also be understood as a pregnant zero, as the link in an urban strategy, a semiotic shifter, the crucial digit in a particular organization of sense.” Where the television brought mass-produced narratives into our home, conflating public and private in its own way, the Walkman allowed us to create our own private narratives in public.

Christian Marclay Untitled (R.E.M. and Sonic Youth), 2008 cyanotype on 156lb. Cold Press Aquarelle Arches 21 x 26 in. (53.3 x 66 cm) signed and dated verso CM-180-PH ©C. Marclay. Courtesy of the artist, Graphicstudio/USF and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photograph: Will Lytch

The ubiquity of the cassette tape marked the shift from home recording to personal drift, as well as the loosening of the corporate grip on copyright and the individual’s perceived right to copy. “The tape cassette is a liberating force…” Malcolm McLaren proclaimed in the early 1980s. “Taping has produced a new lifestyle.” Long before CD burners became standard equipment on the personal computer and MP3s and streaming liberated music from physical formats altogether, cassettes made recording and customization possible. The formalized mix tape, in McLaren’s words, “allowed for the kinds of communication ultimately threatening to power.”

“Home taping is killing music,” proclaimed the British Phonographic Industry. It sounds rather quaint now, but the British Phonographic Industry—BPI, the English sister of the RIAA—was incensed. Their attitude was that every blank tape sold was a record stolen. “BPI says that home taping costs the industry £228 billion a year in lost revenue,” McLaren said in 1979, “so they’re not happy that Bow Wow Wow have already reached No. 25 on the singles chart… ” The home-taping controversy was custom-made for McLaren. He was managing Bow Wow Wow who had a hit with a song celebrating home taping called “C-30! C-60! C-90! Go!” The numbers refer to the standard lengths of blank cassettes: 30-, 60-, and 90-minute formats. “In fact,” adds McLaren, “it’s the classic story of the 80s. It’s about a girl who finds it cheaper and easier to tape her favorite discs off the radio… which is why the record companies are so petrified.” “Mix tapes,” adds Ball, “as community-based, localized mechanisms of distribution, pose a threat to the process of managing the flow of ideas…” which in the recording industry’s opinion was strictly the business of the RIAA.

In the decades since, the industry’s paranoia has only increased. Once music was converted to digital files, then compressed to sizes tradable by computers via phone lines, listening to music on a physical format of any sort was doomed. Sony ceased production of the cassette edition of the Walkman on October 25, 2010, but the internet, which has been feeding music to portable players since the late 1990s, continues the path of both personal media and the piracy thereof.


Ball, Jared, I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011, p. 125.
Bromberg, Craig, The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.
Chambers, Iain. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. New York: Routledge., 1994, p. 49-50.
Du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., & Negus, K, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage, 1997.
Eshun, Kodwo, The Co-Evolution of Humans and Technology: A Discussion with William Gibson. In Roy Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now, Volume 2: More Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum Books, forthcoming, Winter 2021.
Hagood, Mack, Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, p. 195.
Levy, Steven. “The Blank Generation: 1979 as Audio Cassette Enabler.” Gizmodo, July 15, 2009.
McMahon, Jr., C. J. & Graham, Jr., C. D. Introduction to Engineering Materials: The Bicycle and the Walkman. Philadelphia, PA: Merion Books,1992.
Rasmussen, Terje, Personal Media and Everyday Life, Berlin, Germany: Springer, 2014.
Weheliye, Alexander G. Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 135.

Monads and Nomads

We’re all home for the holidays. Looking around the living room at my parents and siblings, I notice that most of them are clicking on their laptops, two are also wearing headphones, one is pecking away at her smartphone. The television is on, but no one’s watching it. Each of us is engrossed in his or her own solipsistic experience, be it a game, a TV show, or some social medium.

Herbert Bayer, “Diagram of the Field of Vision” (1930).

I started teaching college as a graduate student in 2002. In the relatively short time since, I have watched as various devices infiltrated the classroom: from no computers or phones, to special rooms with computers called “smart rooms,” and finally to every classroom fully equipped with computers and screens and every student with their own laptop, tablet, phone, and other various gadgets. “Computers aren’t the thing,” says tech executive Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace) in the TV show Halt and Catch Fire. “They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Well, if that’s the case, we have failed to get to the thing in the classroom.

This is a classroom in 2019. The room is equipped with an iMac and a projector. As a lab, its walls are also lined with iMacs. As you can see, the students bring their own laptops as well.There are 50+ computers in this room — not counting smartphones and tablets. The computers out-number the humans 2-to-1! It was the quietest, least-engaged class I’ve taught yet.

We gather around some screens and use others individually. Large flat-screen displays connected to projectors serve the former purpose, whereas laptops, tablets, and phones serve the latter. But affordances are not merely infrastructural. They are also behavioral. That is, just because technologies are capable of many things doesn’t mean we use them for all of those things. Moreover, we often use them for purposes for which they were never intended. Many affordances emerge from use.

In our evolution from television screens to computer screens and to mobile screens, we’ve fundamentally changed the infrastructure by which ideas spread. We gather together around big screens to watch passively while, paradoxically, we engage as individuals with smaller screens to connect with each other. Screens at the large scale (e.g., theatre, television, etc.) turn us into nomads, hunting and gathering in groups for news, information, and entertainment. Smaller screens turn us into monads, experiencing media individually or together in accompanied solitude. Feeling disconnected from the world we’ve created is a natural response to the fracturing of mediated experiences. Listening to music, for example, once shared together is now stowed away in portable black boxes, while others are delivered to one another via invisibly connected screens.

Marshall McLuhan and a few of his cool frenemies.

The disconnections inherent in our slicing up the world with media operate at different scales and via different channels. Writing before these technologies found their way into our pockets, Marshall McLuhan postulated his “electronic-age” nomads: “Man [sic] the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information gatherer. In this role, electronic man [sic] is no less a nomad than his Paleolithic ancestors.” Our media networks have since gone global while their attendant media devices have gone mobile. Screens of different sizes and mobility shape our world in distinct ways. That is not to say that one can’t go to the theatre or watch television alone, but the design of these media lends them to sharing, whereas the mobile screen is intended for the individual. That is the price of the monad.

With screens that bring the world inside the walls of the home, the dam between the public and the private was broken. Making sense of the distinction when it comes to the mobile screen is a problem. The telephone, once considered a private matter between two callers, is now often shared in public spaces, or tapped, recorded, and stored for later scrutiny. Like the television or theatre, it can be used in groups, as the boardroom conference call illustrates, but it tends toward solitary use, even if that use often takes place in public places. The telephone, as it has become mobile, has succumbed to the screen, so much so that a phone without a screen is already an antiquated concept. The window to the web and to the world that was once in the domain of the living room converged with every other media form on the computer desktop and is now in pockets and bags dispersed throughout the human world. Given their ubiquity, it isn’t difficult to see the media as an environment: it’s all around us.

The Medium Picture, mind-mapped for clarity.

In the last 100 years, there have been two major shifts in media technology: the separation of communication from transportation, starting with the telegraph and continuing via radio and other broadcast media, and on to the telephone and the internet, and the move of representation from the page and the stage to the screen. Both of these shifts—the invisibility of networks and the ubiquity of screens—culminated in the rapid spread of television.

Between 1948 and 1955, television invaded almost two-thirds of American homes. In less than a decade, TV became the nexus of media presence and personal life. As powerful as printed language continues to be, it isn’t the only way we understand the world. The computer did not usher in the information age. The transition from page to screen has been privileged by those who study these changes, but the shift to broadcast media was also prefigured by the lecture circuit and stage-plays. McLuhan was fond of saying that the user of media was its content. Predating McLuhan, the Russian filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein wrote, “The spectator himself [sic] constitutes the basic material of the theatre.” We are as easily lost in words on the page and drama on the stage.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine lamented straying into fantasy, writing,

Stage-plays… carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it, that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things, which yet himself would by no means suffer? yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure. What is this but a miserable madness? for a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections.

St. Augustine’s confessions of losing himself in plays are all too familiar to us. Michel de Certeau wrote in 1984, “Our society has become a recited society, in three senses: it is defined by stories (récits, the fables constituted by our advertising and informational media), by citations of stories, and by the interminable recitation of stories,” his emphases. St. Augustine continues, again describing viewing stage-plays:

What marvel that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy Flock, and impatient of Thy keeping, I became infected with a foul disease? And hence the love of griefs; not such as should sink deep into me; for I loved not to suffer, what I loved to look on; but such as upon hearing their fictions should lightly scratch the surface; upon which, as on envenomed nails, followed inflamed swelling, impostumes, and a putrified sore. My life being such, was it life, O my God?

The connection St. Augustine feels with the histrionics of the stage is also a disconnection from his everyday life, and more importantly for him, with God. This disconnection is the same one we feel through movies, television shows, and video games.

In his 1996 memoir, A Year with Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno proposes the idea of edge culture, which is based on the premise that

If you abandon the idea that culture has a single centre, and imagine that there is instead a network of active nodes, which may or may not be included in a particular journey across the field, you also abandon the idea that those nodes have absolute value. Their value changes according to which story they’re included in, and how prominently.

My friend Mark Wieman noted recently that the long tail, the internet-enabled power law that allows for millions of products to be sold regardless of shelf space, has gotten so long and so thick that there’s not much left in the big head. As the online market supports a wider and wider variety of cultural artifacts with less and less depth of interest, the big, blockbuster hits have had ever-smaller audiences. Eno’s edge culture is based on Joel Garreau’s idea of edge cities, which states that the center of urban life has drifted out of the square and to the edges of town. The lengthening and thickening of the long tail plot our media culture as it moves from the shared center to the individuals on the edges.

The Long Tail.

I’ve encountered this demographic splintering more and more in the classroom as I try to pick universal media artifacts to use as examples. Increasingly, even the biggest shows and movies I bring up leave most of my students out, and whenever I get into the stuff I actually like, I’m greeted with the sound of crickets.

“The Media,” which once carried the prefix “Mass,” has trickled down from a one-to-many broadcast model to more of a one-to-one, individualized state, from the center to the edges. The long tail used to describe the splintering of artifacts and attention, from blockbuster hits for all, to niche interests for each. Now it also describes the apparatuses via which we consume those artifacts, the gadgets that hold our attention. With the further individualization of our media and the adoption of personal media devices, the postmodern promise of individual viewpoints and infinite fragmentation is upon us. As the screens get smaller, so does the number of media experiences we share.

The medium is only the message at a certain scale, and that scale is diminished.

This fragmentation and its diminishing scale were never more evident than during the November 2016 presidential election. None of the old tools could provide a picture of what was going on. “It was the last time we could trust the mass media as a reliable shared narrative,” declares Chris Riley in his 2017 book, After the Mass-Age. Think about news media. As network news splintered into 24-hour cable coverage, so did its audience and its intentions. Riley writes that instead of trying to get the majority to watch, each network preferred a dedicated minority. “Now you didn’t win the ratings war by being objective; you won by being subjective, by segmenting the audience, not uniting them.” And we met them in the middle, seeking out the news that presented the world more the way we wanted to see it rather than the way it really was. “Analog media such as radio and television were continuous, like the sound on a vinyl record,” Douglas Rushkoff writes. “Digital media, by contrast, are made up of many discrete samples. Likewise, digital networks break up our messages into tiny packets and reassemble them on the other end. Computer programs all boil down to a series of 1s and 0s, on or off. This logic trickles up to the platforms and apps we use.” With the further splintering of social media, we choose the news that fits us best. If we’re all watching broadcast network news, we’re all seeing the same story. If we’re all on the same social network, no two of us are seeing the same thing. The limited access to content via broadcast media used to unite us. Now we’re only loosely united via the platform.

One world, one market. Illustration by Adam Haynes for Nike 6.0.

In the 1990s, action-sport events like the X-Games and Gravity Games and short-lived websites like and tried to gather long-tail markets that were too small by themselves into viable mass markets, like a sort of cultural junk bond. It happened with the many musical subgenres of the time. What was the label “alternative” if not a feeble attempt at garnering enough support for separate markets under one tenuous banner? If you can get the kids and their parents invested, you might have a real hit. Then in the 2000s, sub-brands like Nike 6.0 tried again. The “6.0” suffix referred to six domains of extreme sports: BMX, skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding, surfing, and motocross. Whatever the practitioners of such sports might share in attitudes or footwear, they don’t normally share in an affinity for each other. Like the individualized media mentioned above, we remain in our silos, refusing to cross-pollinate in any way.

Even the metaphor of the mainstream is outmoded. It implies groundwater, springs, wells, tributaries, all connected and flowing. There’s a concept in hip-hop regarding your place in the culture that better suits the current state of media at large. To avoid conflict in hip-hop, one creates and stays in their own lane. No merging, no switching, everyone runs parallel. Our larger media culture is much more like a multi-lane highway now than it is a flowing stream of any sort. Everyone—creator and consumer—finds their lane and stays in it, ever enabled by mobile devices with networked screens.

Whether we view ourselves in nomadic groups or as monadic individuals, our experiences collect on the screen like so much data condensation. Michael Heim describes the threshold this way:

Realities are representations continually placed in front of the viewing apparatus of the monad, but placed in such a way that the system interprets or represents what is being pictured. The monad sees the pictures of things and knows only what can be pictured. The monad knows through the interface. The interface represents things, simulates them, and preserves them in a format that the monad can manipulate in any number of ways. The monad keeps the presence of things on tap, as it were, making them instantly available and disposable, so that the presence of things is represented or “canned.”

The surrogate experiences of monads and nomads make up the diverse disconnections implemented by our use of technologies. Large or small, screens deal in illusions, and as porous as they seem, interfaces are still just surfaces.


Anderson, Chris. (2006). The Long Tail. New York: Hyperion.
Saint Augustine. (1961). Confessions. New York: Penguin.
Carey, James. (1989). Communications as Culture. New York: Routledge.
de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Eno, Brian. (1996). A Year with Swollen Appendices. London: faber & faber.
Heim, Michael R. (1993). The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kleberg, Lars. (1993). Theatre as Action: Soviet Russian Avant-Garde Aesthetics. New York: New York University Press.
McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Riley, Chris. (2017). After the Mass-Age. Portland, OR: Analog.
Rushkoff, Douglas. (2019). Team Human. New York: W.W. Norton.
Watkins, S. Craig. (2009). The Young and the Digital. New York: Beacon Press.

Touching Screens: Digital Natives and Their Digits

Since I attempted to brand and explicate the Advent Horizon idea, the following clip has been circulating online. “The new generation is growing up with more digital than print media,” deigns The Huffington Post. “They play with their parents’ smartphones, tablets, laptops. We guess It’s only natural that they examine items that don’t respond to touch — and then move on to the things that do.” Danny Hillis once said that technology is the name we give to things that don’t work yet. I think this baby would disagree with that statement wholesale.

Though I find the sentiment that Steve Jobs “coded a part of her OS” a bit much, this clip reminds me of a story  by Jaron Lanier from the January, 1998 issue of Wired about children being smarter and expecting more from technology. Lanier wrote, “My favorite anecdote concerns a three-year-old girl who complained that the TV was broken because all she could do was change channels.” Clay Shirky tells a similar story in Cognitive Surplus (Penguin, 2010). His version involves a four-year-old girl digging in the cables behind a TV, “looking for the mouse.”

Without mutual engagement and accountability across generations, new identities can be both erratically inventive and historically ineffective. — Etienne Wenger

These are all early examples of a new Advent Horizon being crossed. The touchscreen, the latest ubiquitous haptic device, is here to stay. To those who are growing up with it, everything else seems “broken” — much like a TV “that only changes channels” to a native computer user. We become what we behold.

Why am I always looking at life through a window?
— Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The screen is already the most seductive of technologies. Think about how much time you spend staring at one screen or another. Iain Chambers (1994) writes, “In the uncanny property of the computer to present a ‘world picture’ we confront the boundary set by the screen, the tinted glass that lies between the apparently concrete world and the simulated one of ethereal lights” (p. 64). We want to get in there so bad. Think of the persistent dream of entering the screen and the machine: NeuromancerTRONSnow CrashLawnmower ManVideodrome, and even Inception, among many, many others. It has a mythology all its own.

To its end, we’ve gone from wearing the goggles and gloves of most virtual reality systems to using our bodies as input devices via the sensors of Wii and Kinect, bringing the machine into the room. Where our machines’ portability used to be determined by the size of the technology available, the size of our devices are now dictated by the size of our appendages. We can make cellphones and laptops smaller, but then we wouldn’t be able to hold them or press their buttons individually, a limitation that the touchscreen is admittedly working around gracefully. Still, we have to design at human scale. These are the thresholds of our being with our technology.

The Machine is not the environment for the person; the person is the environment for the machine. – Aviv Bergman

The long-range question is not so much what sort of environment we want, but what sort of people we want. – Robert Sommer

We have to think carefully and cumulatively about what we design. Technology curates culture. Technology is a part of our nature. How will we control it? The same way we do our lawns or our weight: Sometimes we will; sometimes we won’t, but we have to remember that we’re not designing machines. We’re designing ourselves.


Chambers. I. (1994). Migrancy, Culture, Identity. New York: Routledge.

Christopher, R. (2007). Brenda Laurel: Utopain Entrepreneur. In R. Christopher (Ed.), Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes. Seattle, WA: Well-Red Bear.

Keyes, D. (1966). Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. New York: Penguin.

Sommer, R. (2007). Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design. Bristol, England, UK: Bosko Books.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.


And I say peace to Friedrich Kittler (1943-2011).