I’m at Houston and Second Ave, standing in the freezing mist and subway burps of what should be a fresh Spring day in Manhattan. The scene before me is not unfamiliar: traffic rushes downtown, diner lights blink invitingly as wafts of donuts, falafel, and knish puff from under doorways. Thirty or so people stand around shuffling their feet, each staring into their smartphones with the avid infatuation of a lover.
Relishing the warmth of my own cellphone glued securely to the inside of my palm, I’m reminded of David Carr’s recent article in the New York Times. Highlighting the unbearable technological dependency of the ‘smart’ generation, Carr noted that the digital revolution and its designer wardrobe of accessibility has actually made it fashionable to be rude. Has our boundless access to instant communication really begun to destroy our sense of human social conduct? And more importantly, are we all just waiting in an unfortunate state of mediocre anticipation, to share, or have shared with us, some minute nugget of information or passing thought?
Communication technology seeks to bring us closer together, to connect us in more subtle ways than we are able to connect physically, and to open us to new ways of visualizing and experiencing our reality. But David Carr’s concern is a frightening one: that given the chance to interact with individuals, ‘digital natives’ still opt to spend more time in the online world than in the one directly in front of them. Writes Carr: “In places all over America (theaters, sports arenas, apartments), people gather in groups only to disperse into lone pursuits between themselves and their phones.”
Many are faced with the daily battle between enjoying increased access to art, culture, and the global community via technology, and, at the same time, remaining present in their physical realities. But at times like these, when hoping for eye contact makes you feel socially needy, it seems we might be losing balance to the machines.
Back on Houston, I gaze expectantly, if not a little self-consciously, into my own shiny-faced friend. Thankfully, despite first impressions, my East Village compadres and I don’t simply share a taste for high-end handsets and Alphabet City: we are gathered to take a walking tour of the Lower East Side, a la Android. The contradictions of the digital experience have never been so present as we ramble off, married and simultaneously isolated by our personal devices. Our technological shrewdness will allow us to experience, en-masse, 30 location-based plays along the way, devised and led by The New York Neo-Futurists. The Neo-Futurists, an experimental theatre group in Manhattan, hooked up with Broadcastr, a social media platform for location-based streaming of recorded material, to augment the reality of a walking audience as they hear live-streamed mini-plays trapped into and inspired by different blocks of the neighbourhood. As we move through the streets, the GPS technology in our phones releases works that correspond to our exact location; our journey propels our experience, but the environment itself dictates where each scene is set.
This happening belongs to a new global wave of location-based projects that offer ‘intelligent’ progress in the pursuit of integrated art, and a refreshing break from the unending deluge of inane new-media trending. Over on the West coast, the birthplace of the cyberboom, innovators in San Francisco have plans to create short audio-fiction for the iPhone with a GPS triggered page-turner. And across the Atlantic, Hackney Podcast is in the process of creating Hackney Hear, which offers a sonic experience based on your coordinates within the borough.
These projects and technologies seem to be working intuitively with the essential nature of visual art and performance. Focusing on innovation rather than the replacement of traditional mechanisms, they allow us to explore the new without fear of losing what is good about the old. We may be having an individualized experience that relies on our interaction with a personal accoutrement, yet in doing so, our understanding of the world we are in becomes richer.
As we become progressively mobile our ties to the real world multiply, each one becoming looser and increasingly frail. David Carr’s concern that technology divides us, through an ironic and almost pathological fear of being disconnected, has some truth to it—even for the cynics among us. However, these technologies can also allow us to be more intimate with art, its makers, and our collective experience. While it may seem foolish and boring to be resistant to newness or to define irreconcilable binaries, retreating into an analog world of vintage craft to avoid the digital apocalypse is certainly an attractive escape route when faced with such a confusing state of affairs.
It is perhaps easier to define ourselves against an opposition, to identify culturally with one or the other ideology. But those who continue to seek balance through mindful examination of the state of media and its role in society, along with the artists that trial relevant uses for new technologies, are the true heroes of this revolution.