I met David last Sunday. David’s a very successful publisher-illustrator-designer type; the sort of person I could only know through Madeleine, and more specifically Madeleine’s successful art director type brother. But it turns out David doesn’t have a mobile phone and hasn’t had one ever. Well, I can’t confirm the latter for sure, but it’s true he’s never been dependent on one, never had one for a long time and never organised his life around one. Which for me counts as never having had one.
Sometime around early adolescence, the time that I typically choose to excavate from my living memory, I didn’t have a mobile phone, and I guess that was the same for most people my age, but now even little children seem to have them, and if they don’t have a real one, they have a plastic play phone, and I can only envision that this is but momentary interregnum, some kind of mobile-phone-obsessed-nation right of passage, that will shortly be overcome. Now I couldn’t organise my life without mine. So when I hear that David hasn’t got a mobile phone, I have two immediate responses: adulation for his independence and pity for my own gullibility, having been so easily sucked into the mobile-dependent world.
My only reprisal is that I haven’t got a smartphone. This means my phone is stupid. It’s what the industry describes as a “feature” phone, which could only really be a polite way of saying it’s a phone with one feature (or two, because I can also send text messages). While I may feel superior to my smartphone-dependent friends, the reality is I have one foot out and one foot in. Which is worse in a way. Which leads to me recall an article I read some time ago about how technology was the harbinger of a new age of haves and have-nots. While I may have a mobile phone, it isn’t smart, and increasingly I find there is a whole world of apps that I don’t really understand. That makes me a have-not in this new world and it makes Dave, who is able to stand tall and mighty in his absolute rejection of the here and now, some kind of new age mobile-phobic freedom fighter.
It seems to me that this binary distinction runs much deeper than the physical acquisition of technology. I can’t help but like this new age of classlessness, which I believe is firmly upon us and which owes itself to the unequivocal triumph of consumerism, where the human becomes the canvass to adorn and in being so adorned loses all forms of heritage (which, by virtue of being static and inherited, can’t be appropriated by the consumer world but instead must be blanketed over), and which, as once described by a university lecturer of mine, is also an age of classless inequality, is intimately bound up with technology. More specifically, it’s bound up with the age of computer technology, because computer technology, in providing the visual image on screen, is the perfect consumer platform (whereas the body was a static canvas, the computer screen is itself a product of consumerism), and like computer technology, which operates in binaries of 1 and 0, classless inequality has it’s own binary code, the binaries of have and have-not.
So computer technology, which by dint of the smartphone, travels with us everyday of our lives, is the perfect partner in crime to our social quandary. Worse still, it’s becoming a feedback loop, amplifying the binary code, and it requires the participants (or rather, the market participants) to constantly update, refresh and reload in order to stay on the right side of the divide. I think there’s a Daft Punk song that would be a fitting soundtrack to this incessant expense of cultural energy.
The real problem is that binary codes alienate the human from the human. Our experience is more rich, more dynamic than an on-off switch, yet we’re being increasingly funneled into an existence that is all or nothing where you either have it or you don’t. It’s penetrating our conscious: you can see it in the media and the way journalists sensationalise news stories. The message is always simple: he or she is either flying high or down and out. The rich human narrative, full of the middle ground, is reduced to black and white, computed for conspicuous consumption by the masses. The result is as predictable as the input: the journalist types his or her piece on his or her binary computer; he or she makes a cup of coffee, which is either hot or cold, good or bad, and sits down to type out a story of an individual whose fate swings like a pendulum.
I wasn’t of a reader until I reached adulthood. I’ve kept somewhat to the classics (if I’m going to read, I should focus on the most edifying of reads). But even I know that truth has as much to do with the privileging of one narrative over another. Post-structuralists believe this operates at the linguistic level. The logic goes something like this: words get their meaning from being contrasted with the “other” (it is what it is by virtue of what it is not) and therefore exist in a series of oppositions, and superimposed onto these linguistic oppositions is a hierarchy that derives in part from the power currents of mainstream society (as seen in the traditional dominance of male over female). The categorisation of these opposites then leads to an illusory order that helps the inhabitants of that order make sense of the world around them. When we interpret narratives (a collection of words organised to give a linear meaning) post-structuralists would claim that we apply the same basic linguistic tools: we ask whether it was good or bad, right or wrong and then we seek to categorise it.
It’s clear to me that this has as much to do with the human brain as it does with power struggle. The only conceivable form of logic that could exist before language is image. But images, without the sense-making role of language, are either correct or incorrect. Either the image confirms the theorem or disproves it. Of course, the image could instead be nonsensical or irrelevant, but to understand how we would compute that information simply requires an additional layer to the binary equation: is it relevant or irrelevant? Ironically, it’s language itself, which is ultimately derived from image logic, is the means by which helps us move beyond the binary code which exists in the logic of images. While post-structuralists might argue otherwise, to describe the process of computing language as computing an endless series of opposites is to deny the composition that arises from even the smallest string of sentences, and the variety of meaning that can be readily attributed to it. Ultimately our brains may be simple but with the gift of language we become poetic creatures.
If this is the case then we should surely decry the rise of computer technology, the haves and haves-not, the journalist who reduces the story to 1 or 0 equation that can easily be packaged, stored and shipped to anywhere in the world. For computers, with all their glorious innovation, cannot appreciate the composition, and we should remember that it’s the composition, the grey area between the opposites, where we are most human. We need to remember that computers serve us; like the building blocks of our own language, their code enables us to move beyond the opposite and into something truly meaningful. And perhaps there’s an easy way to do this. The light switch is perhaps the barest manifestation of the binary: it’s either on or off. But we invented the dimmer switch. The great, vast in-between, the expanse of grey area where we can find a setting that really suits us, that goes beyond the simple dichotomy of darkness and light to something much greater: the human preference.
So, like the dimmer switch, we need to find a mechanism to make the binary serve our composite; to render computer technology as the enabler of humanity, rather than the alienator. But one simple innovation won’t do the trick and this time the playing field is computerised. What we need is to rediscover a human pace; we need to slow down, admit that we can’t get anything meaningful out of bite-sized binary nuggets of news stories, and rethink our whole approach.
Recently I read that human beings used to sleep in two distinct blocks. The first would begin around two hours after dusk, which would be followed by a waking period of one or two hours, and the second would then continue until daylight the following morning. So rather than our illustrious eight hours’ sleep, which frankly always leaves me feeling rather groggy, human beings, in the days before electricity came along, used to take the time to sleep properly, to take it slowly, to fully recharge.
It’s also a commonly known that if we sleep more, and feel better when we’re awake, we achieve more in less time. And to my mind, it’s only be re-engaging with our former lives, which, when set against the information highway, may at first seem more like the anti-life, that we can overcome the binary code of the haves and have-nots, and ensure that computer technology serves our humanity and not the other way around. In other words, whether you have a smartphone like most of my friends, or a feature phone like me, it’s purpose is to serve you, to facilitate your being human; and being human isn’t about existing in the pressurised feedback loop. It’s about being free to exist in the shades of grey. So resist the immediate, forgo the technological at least once in a while, and take the time to re-engage.