Monday, February 28, 2011

Third Places and Mediation

Yesterday, in The New York Times, the author of a short review of Sherry Turkle's book, Alone Together (which I am reading and appreciating) wrote this:

At times, Ms. Turkle can sound primly sanctimonious, complaining for instance that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: “These people are not my friends,” she writes, “yet somehow I miss their presence.” Such sentimental whining undermines the larger and important points she wants to make in this volume — the notion that technology offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy and communication without emotional risk, while actually making people feel lonelier and more overwhelmed.

Although the review is more commendatory than derogative, this snide comment reveals the general coarsening of our culture. There is nothing "sanctimonious" or "whining" about the loss of unmediated human-to-human relations in public spaces. "Third places" (not work, not home), such as coffee shops, are meant to be places where one can either gather with selected others, be by oneself, or meet new people. Computer mediation removes a significant dimension of these areas of engagement. More people are "along together," unable to pry themselves from screens and phones. I experienced this myself a few weeks ago when I saw someone I knew in an excellent Christian coffee shop called Solid Grounds, in Littleton, Colorado. I made eye contact and asked a question. However, I did not see the cell phone hidden behind the woman's ear (although I did see the laptop open before her). In just a second, I realized I was interrupting something else, not initiating a conversation or even just saying a polite hello.

Alone Together explores these kinds of problems seriously, and should thus be taken seriously by those who are not content to be swallowed up by the data-sphere.

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