A regrettable consequence of our persisting global pandemic is that it has hastened the evolution of our culture into a digital niche. Many precious occasions we once held in person, among the company of others, are now conducted through the domain of virtual meetings. Weddings, funerals, birthdays – you name it.
Of course, this trend preceded the pandemic and shall continue long after as rapid as the technological development of the digital space allows and perhaps, we are better for it in many ways, not least in that it has allowed us to keep businesses afloat, family members in touch and isolated friends in contact, and so on.
That one can recognize that this cultural trajectory is in some sense an inevitable consequence of technological change shouldn’t invalidate any feelings of indignation one might have toward it. After all, cultural change does not simply proceed at the beck and call of technical change. Rather, cultural change evolves as a synthesis between these new technologies and the social arrangements made by a society to accommodate said innovations.
To be offended by some aspect of a new cultural arrangement may be a clue that there is some X-factor that hasn’t been captured from before. One example I can think of is the awkward structure of Zoom-call conversations. Between the frequent overlap of voices and subsequent silences, even a call with a dear friend who understands your lingo can feel like an uncoordinated dance with a stranger. I think this is due at least in part to the physical cues that inform our conversations in person.
Even an afternoon walk in the hustling city center of Dublin is mediated to a large extent by some digital reality. The tenuity of our connection to the physical space is maintained by our constant referral to the digital world. A panopticon of store-window screens, CCTV-cameras, and the like. Walking through the main hallway of a shopping mall feels in some way orchestrated – our attention carefully managed and directed by an array of digital landscapes.
It is against this backdrop that I found a walk through the empty streets of Dublin remarkably strange. Quite unlike the terse walk I usually have walking through crowds, this walk felt unconstrained. In quite a visceral sense I became fully aware of the space around me – devoid of anyone else.
I’m reminded of that old game one would find at arcades – Pinball. The game is played inside a tilted chamber containing levers, which one mashes buttons to flick a small ball around to keep it from rolling into one of the sinks. The interior of the chamber is often a miniaturized version of an arcade or a circus containing ramps, walls and bumpers bedazzled with flashing neon lights and awash with bright color.
In some way, I’d like to think a lone walk through the city streets may be analogized to the pinball freely exploring the interior of the chamber, free from the careening shunts of the levers and absent all the flashing lights. It would be strange, to navigate a space devoid of the usual forces we acquiesce ourselves to. You, as the pinball, would recognize how much of your course through this technological maze is controlled by forces external to yourself.
The one bit of the analogy which doesn’t quite relate well to streetwalking at night is the fact that the ball obeys only the laws of physics as it bounces around the chamber – it has no choice but to do so. Stranger to think is that in the case of the streetwalker, the rules are not so much decided by some natural law but by social conventions, however implicit. An implicit set of rules which we all abide by to steer ourselves through the urban sprawl.
I suppose that is what is most strange about it all, how absent-minded our obedience is to a set of social norms that as quickly are learned as they are forgotten, in the early hours of a Dublin walk.