Five Years Gone

This is something I wrote back in, oh, November 2003 or thereabouts, just after getting my first wifi enabled PDA, and then it vanished from public view after my blogging software of the time shat itself and died. Some of you may remember it. I’m reposting it so it’s available as context to some more recent thoughts in a similar vein that I want to set down when I get a bit of time.


Not the kinky kind. This is the first definition of the word:

1: An object that is believed to have magical or spiritual powers, especially such an object associated with animistic or shamanistic religious practices.

I got a new toy the other day. Like most of the new toys I’ve bought over the last few years, it’s designed to increase my level of connectedness to the world around me. It’s a Palm Tungsten C. I bought it because it has wireless network access built in, thus allowing me to do useful things like check my email while standing at the bus stop outside my front door, waiting for the bus in the mornings.

Yes, yes, please stop laughing now. I am going somewhere with this.

I’ve been thinking about the way mobile communications are affecting our public lives – specifically, how they’re allowing us to carry little zones of privacy around with us. Part of the reason most people think it’s rude to talk at length on a mobile phone on public transport is because we’re conditioned to the idea that phone conversations take place in the privacy of one’s own home. When they talk on the phone it’s as if they’ve thrown a little bubble of private space up around themselves while they’re on the phone, but somehow pulled us into it, and forced us to listen. Wouldn’t you feel awkward if a complete stranger dragged you into their home, and then started talking to a friend who was already in there? We’re being made unwilling eavesdroppers into someone else’s life.

And also, it’s a statement of disconnection. It’s saying “I choose not to be stuck in here with you. There is something better and more interesting elsewhere.” This, obviously, isn’t really a big deal from a stranger on a train, but if our friend is forever on the phone to someone else while they’re down the pub, well, we might rightly get our noses out of joint.

And of course, my new toy, with its ability to find an internet connection anywhere there’s wireless network for me to leach onto could be massively offensive in that vein. OK, so it’s pretty unlikely to cause the first problem, unless I take to recording voice memoes in public, but even my head isn’t that far up my own rectum yet. But the second? Not just “I find someone else on the other end of a phone more interesting that you.” but “I find a machine halfway around the world more interesting than you.”

But on the other hand for all it disconnects me from the people around me, it connects me to a much broader world. I could install chat software on it, and talk in real time with someone in San Francisco while sitting in a London pub.

So perhaps my description of these items as kinds of fetish isn’t wholly inappropriate. It disconnects its user from their immediate tribe, marks them out as different, in contact with places that are Not Here, communicating with beings that others cannot see. And of course, the tribe around the user respond with discomfort, although it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they’ll come to them asking them to use their strange and offensive capabilities for the benefit other members of the group.

New Shamanism. We Don’t Need No Steenkin’ Sweat Lodges.