A(n Ever)note from the train
There’s something remarkable about the interaction between man and machine (and vice versa). Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams both had their own view in this classic debate about the social shaping of technology versus the technological shaping of society. Beyond man, new media technologies have showed a major influence on the concept of everything physical around us.
Train of thought
It kept me busy. What is it that attracts me to the whole notion of new media? It is abstract, pervasive and ubiquitous at the same time. It changes the way we interact with the world and the people in it. A little example. I just entered the train and found a seat. To create the illusion that I can kill time during the trip, I put on my headphones and press play. I then grabbed my laptop to write down this very story. To my surprise, the light won’t go on and I quickly draw the conclusion that my battery must be flat. So I take the smartphone out of my pocket and open Evernote to get the job done. I hesitate. Haven’t I just got some pen and paper? No, and I continue what I started. Suddenly the screen changes and I see that a friend is calling. I take the call, but am aware that I’m in the stiltecoupé, the specific part of the train that doesn’t allow me to have a conversation. It’s a courtesy translated into the public transporter’s policy to maintain the peace and silence on the train. I tell my friend to hold on for a minute as I walk out to a place where I can talk.
There is a lot that you can tell from this little banal anecdote. First of all, I’m a digital native human being. When I was a kid, I spent days of playing video games on our Nintendo Entertainment System and when I was a teenager I downloaded mp3′s through Napster and began teaching myself the basics of HTML. Nowadays, I always carry this little battery powered black box with me that contains the equivalent of about 25 physical compact discs. Besides that, I have my (momentarily not so battery powered) laptop. And to top it off, I also possess a smartphone which is more like pocketsized computer. Paper was missing in the story.
Second, there’s the interaction that I apply with the different new media objects. I want to stress that I mean interaction in it’s broadest sense. I could talk about how I used Evernote to (partially) write this very blog post. My words are stored in the cloud and I continue my work later on on my laptop. But it’s another form of interaction that I would like to emphasize, the interaction between the virtual and the physical. Throughout my Bachelor’s I wrote a few papers on the notion of space in relation to new media. In my anecdote, I’m sitting in the stiltecoupé of the train. I choose to listen music with headphones on, which creates a personal space. Then I get the phone call from my friend, creating a new interlinked space. I want to make sure that I do not bother other passengers and walk out of the physical space, in which it’s not appropriate to have a conversation.
Room for access and restriction
The stiltecoupé is a physical space that is introduced in Dutch trains by the NS. In it, you are expected not to have conversations, not with fellow passengers and certainly not on the phone. If you want to listen music, you must keep the volume on a decent level so you do not distract and/or bother others around you. It sounds quite simple and straightforward and NS considered a certain coupé needed. If people truly do follow the guidelines in a civilized way is of course a whole other matter. But it’s not all strictly silence and courtesy that distinguishes the NS. They are also experimenting with free wi-fi on certain trains, that also carry screens aboard that display all sorts of information. You can see which stops the train makes, how long it will take to get to the next stop, with what speed the train is traveling, and if we encounter any delays and more. By providing this information, NS actually augments the reality of the passengers. The wi-fi and the screens broaden the access to information on the direct environment in which the travelers find themselves.
Internet of things
What if my smartphone recognizes the stiltecoupé I’m in and automatically gives my friend a reply that I’m not able to talk? In the internet of things this would be possible. Bruce Sterling wrote about this in his work Shaping Things. He notes that we move from an era of artifacts to the current age of gizmos. Sterling then coins the term spimes as a new form of object and envisions this to be every single object around us on which we can find every single piece of information we like and also exchange information with (Sterling, 2005). What social implications will the internet of things bring? In such a world we have to deal with surveillance issues, privacy matters, sustainability and informational overload to name a few. How will the augmenting of reality influence the physical world around us? If we can detect objects around us and moreover, interact with it (and it with us), what kind of world would that be? Is that a train we should hop onto?