A plethora of opinion pieces over the past year have been popping up about people's (often haphazard) relationship with the internet. Facebook sabbatical this, digital detox that. Each week, a new article appears urging users to disconnect from the screen and reorient with what's real. We now have an abundance of anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that our relationship with technology is faulty, while we lack an informed, collective viewpoint about what appropriate interaction might be.
Though we're still in early stages of determining which behaviors are fruitful and which are not, we now at least have an idea of what to call the phenomena that accompany them. Enter Cyborg Anthropology, a science that's been around for over a decade, but has just recently gained momentum thanks to author / TEDster / UX designer Amber Case.
In her upcoming book, A Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology, Case coins terms like Intermittent Reinforcement , explaining why your iPhone feels akin to a Tamagotchi; Ambient Intimacy , of our ability to always connect; and a personal favorite, Liminal Space , which is illustrated below:
"In life, there are moments in between other moments," says Case. "Moments at the checkout register, moments between conversations, waiting for the bus and so on. In the past, people might have lit a cigarette or casually chatted with the person behind them. Now they poke at their phones. Their phones now contain a space, a virtual one, that is betwixt and between lived space."
The concept of Liminal Space is fascinating, especially when thinking about it in the context of an elevator. The elevator: a formally inescapable in-between place known for small talk and awkward wall-glancing. People groan in anticipation of that stuff; now, one needn't worry about it. Everyone stares at their screens and everyone has a screen to stare at. I wonder if Asch's elevator experiment would still have the same effect today. Would we look past our screens to notice anything?
Ambient Intimacy, a touchy one. Does Timeline creep you out at all? The idea that, with the simple touch of a button, you have the ability to peruse acquaintance's interactions and reports, all the way back to 2006? At first we might feel perturbed by such advancements but, after awhile, it starts to feel okay. Historically, such a level of intimacy has been built by stories, deserved through trust, and established over time. Modern advancement says we get to experience it with the drunkard from last night. Spicy! And surprisingly not that weird anymore.
Preceded by B.F. Skinner's research on Operant Conditioning, Intermittent Reinforcement is the reason we love smart phones. Getting a gumdrop every day at noon would bore us. We'd know what and when to expect. Getting a gumdrop every time we made a nice gesture would bore us too. We'd see it coming and its value would drop to nothing. Receiving a random bouquet of candies, randomly throughout the week, and for no reason at all--now that you can put a bow on. Infrequent, unpredictable gifts are what keep us delighted with, and incessentaly attentive to our smart phones.
We're still young in figuring out how technology fits into our lives, and there are plenty of opinions about it. What's great about Cyborg Anthropology, though, is that it strives to be a neutral party. Without passing judgment on technological tools or the people who use them, Amber Case provides us a better understanding of the roots of our digital mannerisms and the terminology to relate them.