Disconnecting the Dots: How Our Devices are Divisive — My Talk from SXSW Interactive

March 20th, 2011 | Category: About, Essays, Talks

I’ve been thinking about all of the ways we change our world with our technology for years now, but more so lately as my book-in-progress, The Medium Picture, comes into better focus. This talk itself is brand new and not quite complete. Regardless, I decided to take my own advice and get it out there. I did this one for the first time at SXSW Interactive 2011. Judging by the post-talk discussion, these ideas are generative if not fully formed. In what follows, I expand my speaking notes, including bits from my thinking aloud in old posts from this site, references, my slides, and a video clip. Also, the audio from the talk is available on the SXSW site.


Technology is not taking over our world. It already did. Take a look in any coffeeshop, and you’ll see humans strapped to machines, ignoring one another. Take a look at any street in the city, and you’ll see humans strapped into machines, ignoring one another. Your cognitive surplus is sitting in traffic. We shape our technology and it shapes us. Marshall McLuhan said that, but his thoughts have become such a staple of our vocabulary that no one even cites him anymore. Chances are, your feet are literally shoe-shaped. Some of us have bodies that are car-shaped. Our technology frees us from so much physical labor, but we to exercise. We drive our cars to the gym to run on treadmills. The very existence of gyms points to a disconnection between our physical bodies and our work.

When I first started thinking about this disconnection, I was on my way to class and then the climbing gym. I realized that I had the option of taking the elevator to class on the seventh floor and then going to the gym to climb afterward. It struck me as odd that the two actions were completely disconnected. Getting to a higher floor in one building and the act of climbing up the wall in another were totally disassociated, even though they were essentially the same act.

We love our technology. Walk into an older building, built before elevators were standard, and you’ll see grand staircases filling its atrium. In newer buildings, one can scarcely find the stairs. They’re tucked away out of site, while the shiny elevator doors are on display. We showcase our latest mechanical marvels.

Also when I started thinking about these disconnections, I went looking for an example of connection. I found a map showing a direct link from the brain to the act of riding a bicycle — something our bodies never forget how to do. In addition during this, I started riding a fixed-gear bicycle. That is, a bicycle that has a direct connection between the front and rear gears and the rear wheel (the pedals and the rear wheel are thereby working in concert at all times, so that the bicycle doesn’t coast). Given the extra work and hazards associated with such a vehicle, people often ask me why? What’s the appeal? Well, one of the reasons that fixed-gears are so seductive is the direct connection one has to the distance traveled and the control of the motion. No matter the terrain or conditions, your body is always at work negotiating the ride. You and your brain are directly connected to your environment. Once you start coasting, the disjunct begins.

If you want to investigate this simple disconnection a bit further, think about your activities from the point of view of your pets. Think about what you’re doing from the point of view of your dog (your cat won’t care what you’re doing). If your dog is confused by your sitting and staring at a screen or a paper for too long, you are disconnected.

A beginning is a split, a disjunct, a bifurcation. At the beginning of every story, there is a phase during which one feels a bit disoriented: the first pages of a novel, the first scenes of a movie or play, the first notes of a song, the first song of a record, the part of the performance where the audience members are still finding their seats. You don’t know where we’re going from here.

The introduction of every new technology gives us the same feeling. Significant advances in technology are disjunctive. They are beginnings. They are bifurcations. Feared and disparaged at first, technological contrivances are eventually welcomed in and change our world. They literally change our minds. They change our relationship with our worlds and with each other.

If you came here looking for the contemptus mundi, it-s-all-going-to-hell point of view, you’re in the wrong place. Technology is a part of our nature. The singularity already happened. It was called “agriculture.”

These concerns are not new. People have been worrying about technology taking over our lives for as long as we’ve been externalizing our knowledge and tempering our world with tools. This is a painting by Harry Grant Dart from a 1911 issue of Life Magazine — one hundred years ago. It depicts an extreme example. A man is shown seated in the middle of a room where speakers, tubes, ducts, projectors, and printouts provide his every need – comfort, nutrition, information, entertainment. He needn’t ever leave his chair.

More recently (same slide), artist Jeff Nicholson depicted the main character in his 1994 comic Through the Habitrails enduring technology-enabled, all-at-once weekends. His work week leaves him so drained of enjoyment and so far from his interests that he seeks to fill the gap as quickly as possible. “My stimuli is taken directly to my nerve endings and orifices,” he wrote, “and I take it in and in and in with clenched teeth and a fibrillating heartbeat.” Attempting to reconnect the disconnected parts of his life, Nicholson’s nameless protagonist relies solely on technology.

Context: This is where we’re going from here:

  • Disconnection
  • Threshold
  • Bridge

This is the process of technological mediation, a process that happens in three stages: disconnection, threshold, and bridge. First, there is a break, a split, a disconnection. As with a new invention or application, a new path is formed deviating from the old. This break leaves a threshold to be traversed, a chasm between what was and what is. Crossing the threshold requires a bridge, a new metaphor. When one first hears a novel metaphor, there is a new way of seeing something, a break from the old (disconnection). The existence of this new knowledge leaves an obvious gap between it and the old way (threshold). Before long, the metaphor becomes the only way we think about the idea (bridge).

Technology is quickly antiquated, so this process happens very quickly. Think about when you see picture or movies that have cathode ray tube monitors or televisions in them. They look old! But it’s only been in the past few years that we’ve switched to flatscreens. Just saying the word “MySpace” gets a chuckle. Again, it’s only been a few years since it was not only relevant, but part of the zeitgeist.

We’re no good at predicting these things either. Sure, we can tell that cell phones are going to get smaller and become ubiquitous, but in other ways, we’re clueless. I watch Blade Runner (1982) on a regular basis, and for all of its prescience, it completely misses a couple of key things. In one scene Deckard is reading a newspaper (not a fancy, animated Minority Report newspaper either), and in another he uses a payphone. In the movie’s defense, it was a video payphone, but I seriously doubt that either of these technologies will be extant in Los Angeles in 2019.

Here’s how silly our predictions look. This is Steve Newman’s “Telepaper” story as broadcast on KRON in San Francisco in 1981 [runtime: 2:17]:

Disconnection: We employ and implement technology to mediate the spaces between…

  • Ourselves and each other — The most obvious and least interesting of these disconnections.
  • Ourselves and our work  — Steven Johnson pointed out in Interface Culture (Harper San Francisco, 1997) that the Graphical User Interface makes us feel closer to our work on our machines, but that it’s actually a layer of abstraction between us and the work that’s going on inside the computer. It is a metaphor that we often acknowledge we are using.
  • Ourselves and our world — Clothes, cars, roads, buildings, cities, etc. As Max Frisch once put it, “Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it.”
  • Ourselves and our selves — Our minds are colonized by our technologies. Our minds are literally different when a new technology exists. New knowledge and new stuff physically and chemically changes the make up of what’s in your head. Howard Bloom uses the example of bags used to carry things. In his “Jack the Pelican presents” lecture from 2003, he explains it by saying that our brains are different when different inventions exist. That is, we have different thoughts and dreams after certain ideas and innovations exist in our world (the material to the spiritual). Before bags were invented, one could only carry what would fit in one’s hands. After bags, well, it depends on the bag and one’s fortitude for carrying.

All of our technologies have both the potential to augment human abilities and to obstruct them. For example, think about talking on the telephone. On one end of the spectrum, the telephone allows us to communicate with each other over vast distances, rendering our physical location almost irrelevant (augmentation). On the other end, the voice-only nature of the telephone strips our communication of facial expressions, gestures, and other nonverbal cues (obstruction). One can play this game with every machine and device we’ve conceived and implemented.

Every new technology frees us from something while binding us to itself.

We’ve used metaphors to conceptualize and understand phenomena since early Greek philosophy. Thinking theorists over the years have compared the human mind to the clock, the steam engine, the radio, the radar, and the computer. The latter of which has been the most useful and generative, and its use is so common that we rarely give it a second thought. If the explanatory power of the metaphor in use is successful, the metaphor becomes obsolete. If a metaphor obsolesces into general usage, it is forgotten as a metaphor. These splits, these breaks, these thresholds, between disorientation and orientation and between acknowledging a metaphor and just using it — the beginning, the space between the two, and how we handle the transition — are where the process of technological mediation happens. Something is lost every time we cross over that space.

Donald Norman calls the threshold between our goals as users of technology and the interfaces of the physical systems we use — the mappings between the two — “distance.” The “gulf of evaluation” is what we have to figure across the gap, and the “gulf of execution” is what the machine does. I use his as an example of the threshold in all of these situations.

Threshold: In The Young & The Digital (Beacon, 2009), Craig Watkins points out an overlooked irony in our switch from television screens to computer screens: We gather together around the former to watch passively, while we individually engage with the latter to actively connect with each other.

And we want to get in there so bad... Think of Tron and Lawnmower Man: We’ve gone from wearing goggles and gloves in order to enter the machine (e.g., most typical virtual reality systems), to using our bodies as input devices (e.g., Wii,Kinect, etc.), bringing the machine into the room.

The size of our devices are now decided by the size of our appendages. We can make cellphones and laptops smaller, but then we wouldn’t be able to hold them. We have to design at human scale.

Advent Horizon: I call the line we draw at the edge of our level of comfort with technology our “Advent Horizon.” We feel a sense of loss when we cross it. From the Socratic shift from speaking to writing, to the transition from writing to typing, we’re comfortable — differently on an individual and collective level — in one of these phases. As we adopt and assimilate new devices, our horizon of comfort drifts further out while our media vocabulary increases. Any attempt to return to a so-called “Natural State” is a futile attempt to get back across the line we’ve drawn for ourselves.

Evidence that we’ve crossed one of these lines isn’t difficult to find. Think about the resurgence of vinyl record sales, or the way we teach computer animation. The former is an analog totem from a previous era, the latter is analog scaffolding for the digital world. Fans of vinyl records are either clinging to their youth or celebrating the only true music format that ever mattered. A vinyl record is a true document of a slice of time. I visited Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida last summer. In their animation and game design programs, students take illustration, flipbook-style animation, and 3-D modeling — real-world 3-D, like sculpture — before they ever sit down at a computer. Clinging to a previous era and having to back up to learn something new: These are evidence that an Advent Horizon has been crossed.

Bridge: Touchscreens are making strides to reconcile these limits, but the QWERTY keyboard is still our most ubiquitous bridge into the machineworld. Writing is a bridge. It is an interioralizing technology that externalizes knowledge and memory. No matter which story you believe about its origins, the QWERTY keyboard has changed our behavior.

The shift from writing to typing is also worth mentioning. The two acts — much like browsing for an item in a physical store versus searching for the same item in a database online — are related in only the most tenuous way. Typing an “L” and a “B” versus hand-writing an “L” and a “B” are just not related.

Technology curates culture. Aspects of our lives only matter because a certain number of us have decided that they do. Often called social construction and often harshly critiqued as uselessly postmodern, the concept is testable. Go to your local coffee shop or restaurant and try to walk behind the counter. You will be swiftly ushered back to the other side of the counter if not out of the establishment. Whether or not there is an actual physical barrier in place, there is an accepted area for the employees and one for the patrons – that’s social construction. As a society or culture we tend to agree on a great many of these constructions. We decide what matters.

Technology makes decisions for us. Often there isn’t a choice as to what is easier, more convenient, or more fun, much less what is more acceptable. Often the technology in place makes only one path available.

The tyranny of adoption. Many times we find that those around us have moved across an Advent Horizon en masse, leaving us behind, or forcing us to cross our line. The opposite is also true. If you’re the only one who adopts a technology, it’s useless until your friends start using it. MySpace works as an example here as well: It’s still viable if all of your friends are using it.

Last year here at SXSW, a friend of mine was exchanging contact information with this woman he’d met here. They both had iPhones, so he wanted to use an app called “Bump,” where you just bump two iPhones together and the contact information transfers from one to the other. Well, the lady he was trying to, er, “bump” didn’t have the app, so they had to enter their information in manually. That’s the tyranny of adoption.

“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 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.


So, there you have it. Again, the audio is here, and references are below. Please feel free to offer feedback in the comments below, or tweet about it using the #divisivedevices hashtag. Thanks to those who braved the time change and came to see it live, and as always, thank you all for your time and attention.


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

Johnson, S. (1997). Interface Culture. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

McLuhan,M. (1964). Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Norman, D. (1986). User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-computer Interaction. New York: CRC Press.

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin.

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

Watkins, S. C. (2009). The Young & The Digital. New York: Beacon.

Further Posting: