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A Tincture of Mobility

Computing lifts anchor and sets sail. The tide of mobility is upon us: everything is battery powered, small enough to carry in a pocket and always already jacked into the Network. When we think about mobile computing, it’s the combination of the small device and the available cloud of networked services that make the experience. The nodes looking at their displays are now out walking around in the midst of their daily life. Startled, they mutter ‘sorry’ as the bump into other nodes face down, absorbed a in small display, while their feet carry them forward.

What was a tool meant to increase productivity has become a technical interface for enjoying various forms of entertainment. If we were to do a breakdown of time spent on the different categories of computing activities, we’d find the slice of the pie chart that represents ‘working’ is shrinking, while the ‘non-working’ slice is growing in every direction. If you enjoy handicapping the fortunes of the various technology platforms, you need look no further than this ratio. In its IPO filing Facebook noted that users spend 10.5 billion minutes per day on its platform—and that doesn’t even include mobile usage.

Spending time on social networks has become a replacement for watching television. And just like television, when that much time is devoted to something, we begin to discuss addiction. To what degree do we choose to spend our time this way? Is there a point where sparking dopamine transmitters and well-worn neural pathways limit our selection set to the point where jacking into the Network seems like the only choice there is?

Once everyone is doing it, we see the early adopters begin to look uncomfortable. As Yogi Berra once said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” When everyone is a consumer, the only move a hipster has is to consume not consuming. A high-profile blog post on why you’re quitting Facebook usually does the trick. Abstinence, boycotting and unplugging are the moves that appear to give you the distance to glare cynically at the crowd. But there is no outside anymore. You can’t remove yourself from Google. You’ve always already been hacked. That computer virus that infected your computer has wormed its way into your DNA. As computing goes mobile, we suddenly discover we’re living inside the Network. The small device we take outside only serves to show us that there is no outside anymore.

The feeling of “mobile” has nothing to do with small computing devices and networked cloud services. It’s taking the mental state of being jacked into the Network for a walk. We can say it’s about productivity and efficiency, that somehow this combination of technologies allows us to make better choices about our time. But it’s really about the buzz. Much like a pharmaceutical, this set of technologies reliably invokes a specific mental state. And once you can produce that state at will, why would you want to chain it to a desk?

Romanticism 19: Thomas De Quincey
Romanticism 19: Thomas De Quincey (Drugs)

(Kant on opium)

The seed of this series of thoughts occurred while listening to Tim Morton’s lecture on Thomas De Quincey, a writer during the romantic period of English literature. In particular, the phrase “portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle” struck me as an apt description of the current state of mobile computing. For De Quincey, opium dissolved in a tincture of alcohol (laudanum) was an inexpensive formula to invoke spiritual happiness and divine enjoyment. We prefer a technical formula, a tincture of simulacra in a small networked electronic device. It’s quite interesting to note the degree to which our attitudes with regard to mobile computing begin to mirror De Quincey’s entanglement with opium.

Here’s De Quincey, author of “Confessions of an Opium Eater“, as an early advocate of the mobile:

Arrived at my lodgings, it may be supposed that I lost not a moment in taking the quantity prescribed. I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it‚—in an hour—oh heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me‚—in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea, a pharmakon for all human woes; here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstacies might be had corked up in a pint bottle, and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail-coach. But if I talk in this way the reader will think I am laughing, and I can assure him that nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion, and in his happiest state the opium-eater cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro: even then he speaks and thinks as becomes Il Penseroso. Nevertheless, I have a very reprehensible way of jesting at times in the midst of my own misery; and unless when I am checked by some more powerful feelings, I am afraid I shall be guilty of this indecent practice even in these annals of suffering or enjoyment. The reader must allow a little to my infirm nature in this respect; and with a few indulgences of that sort I shall endeavour to be as grave, if not drowsy, as fits a theme like opium, so anti-mercurial as it really is, and so drowsy as it is falsely reputed.

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