Thursday, January 9, 2014

Resocializing technology: the loss of public spaces to private technology

Photo by StudioTempura, used under CreativeCommons
I was speaking with a friend recently, and he mentioned in passing that he has a standing gathering with other friends to listen to a monthly radio show together. I’m not sure why this social gathering around radio resonated with me so much, but I have been thinking about it since. I think it’s because I conceived of traditional AM/FM radio as a solitary activity, something you listen to in the car while traveling, perhaps. The idea of recontextualizing it as a social activity was fantastic to me.

I’ve since come to have a standing time, Sunday evenings, to listen to a local soccer show on AM radio with my wife (we’re both big soccer fans). It’s become one of my favorite events of the week. We sit together and listen to the hosts discuss various topics, and we give each other skeptical looks when we disagree with something or nod vehemently when we agree. Why did we just start doing this now? And, more importantly, are there other formerly social—and I use that in the purest sense of the word, not as in “social media”—technologies that have become privatized and could be resocialized?

I thought it might be useful to think through some areas where the acquisition of private technologies have had a social cost. I’m aware that this post could end up being circulated with the hashtag #oldGuyThingsToSay, but I’m willing to take that risk to clarify my thoughts on the matter. While I do no suggest that we revert to some idyllic period where we throw our laptops against the wall in a frenzied act of liberation, I do invite you to ponder the topic.

1.     Video Games – I grew up during the death throes of the American arcade. Arcades were still around (and I loved visiting them), but they had started to be supplanted by the home gaming console. It’s true that, during this time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the hardware in the arcades outpaced home game consoles, but the home games were pretty damn good, and more importantly, convenient. But as people flocked to the more convenient option, something social was lost. Sure, you could have a friend or two over and play, but that’s not the same as a public space (what sociologists sometimes call a “public,” used as a noun) where people could meet others and socialize in groups. I realize that there is a kind of virtual socializing that comes with massively multiplayer games, but I think that’s something different. I think, like facebook, it fosters numerous weak ties and few strong ones.

2.     Video Rentals – Yes, functionally speaking, there is no comparison between the video store days of
Photo by Daniel Spils
Used under CreativeCommons
yore and the experience of having access to the wealth of material provided by Netflix and Amazon VoD. But hear me out on this one. Think about going to Blockbuster (or West Coast Video) with your friends or family to pick out a tape. The trip to the store and the physical browsing was, I would argue, more of the overall experience than watching the film itself. It’s not social in the same way that arcades were, but it was still a public of sorts. You could run into friends and their families there, etc. The ubiquitous access to movies anywhere with an internet connect is a vastly superior functional experience, but it’s hard to argue that nothing was lost in the privitization of the home movie watching process.

3.     Computer Labs – Being the son of a faculty member and working at a university since I graduated from one, I’ve been at universities my whole life. When I was going to school, I worked in and spent much of my time in the computer labs (yes, I’m a geek). The reason was that all of my friends were there. We would work on assignments there and play games (sometimes more games than assignments). It was one of the greatest publics I’ve experienced to this day. People would come and go, and we would make new friends and spend hours with current friends. We would have food delivered (we didn’t see that sign that said “No food or drink in the labs!!!!”), and it was a kind of home to us. As a result, you can imagine how I feel about the current question that comes up constantly at universities: “Can we get rid of labs? Most students have their own computers.” Functionally speaking, yes. We could probably almost get rid of labs (not quite). But socially speaking, I think it’s a big mistake. It will be yet another public subsumed into the privitization of technology. I understand that there is no lack of socializing in college, even without the labs, but for some people the lab is an important hybrid space between work and play. It will be sad to see it go the way of the arcade. See here for more info.

Photo by John Kannenberg, used under CreativeCommons
So what’s the point? Is this a verbose old-guy lament for the halcyon days of the past? Maybe a little. But more than that it’s a suggestion. A suggestion to consider how you can resocialize the aspects of your life that have been privatized by the ubiquity of technology and internet connections.

My friends who meet up to listen the radio got this so very right. And it’s not the fact that they use an actual radio; they could just as easily stream the show online. The point is that they listen together, in person. I’ve taken their good example as a challenge to consider the way I use technology for entertainment and for consuming cultural material. While I probably won’t be picking up some Sour Patch Kids to go along with my VHS rental anytime soon, I’ll keep an eye out for ways I can restore the social aspect of life where it has been lost. 

1 comment:

Dan Alig said...

When I was in high school I spent a good deal of time at the arcade in UCLA's student union. I was on campus recently visiting a colleague, and as I walked through hoping to catch a glimpse of the pinball machines I happened upon "Game On!". They've basically replaced the traditional arcade with a room full of Xboxes and Playstations. I get what they were trying to do, but it just felt so very wrong. Definitely #oldGuyThingsToSay...