Responses to “The Air of Isolation” in Public: C&W 2011

I’m heading to Ann Arbor next week for Computers and Writing, and thought I’d post some of my materials here as I’m working on them (as I just posted them to the conference website).

Presentation Title: Material Responses to ‘The Air of Isolation’ of Mobile Devices: The Rhetoric of the Public/Private Distinction at Snakes & Lattes Board Game Café

Original Proposal:

Transcript of video (available here):
With the increased use of mobile devices such as cell phones, laptops, ipods, and e-readers, popular discourses have turned to the topoi of the private, isolation, and public spaces in order to express anxieties that users are isolating themselves in public and ignoring their material surroundings. These anxieties, though, often say more about our conceptions of public and private spaces than they do about actual practices with these technologies, as Nedra Reynolds points out in Geographies of Writing.

One such response to public use of mobile devices is the opening of Snakes & Lattes Board Game Café in Toronto, which explicitly forbids the use of laptops. This presentation will describe and analyze the discursive and material rhetoric of Snakes & Lattes, which opened in 2010. Snakes & Lattes offers a rich site of investigation into the material practices of the public/private distinction in relationship to mobile technologies. As owner Ben Castanie explains, “I just don’t want people sitting staring at their screens” (Torontoist).

This presentation analyzes Snakes & Lattes in order to investigate how people respond to real and perceived shifts in the public/private distinction made possible by the use of mobile communication devices. Ultimately, what these rhetorics and practices reveal are assumptions and beliefs about mobility, sociality, and material relations with others in public.

Some Pre-Conference Ideas and Outlining My Presentation:

At the time I proposed this presentation, I was hoping to have visited Toronto and conducted interviews with various patrons of Snakes & Lattes before the conference. Unfortunately, my project got tied up in IRB approval. Instead of discussing Snakes & Lattes more specifically, this presentation will instead be more conceptual. I will sketch a few ideas out here that I hope to explore more in Ann Arbor.

I selected Snakes & Lattes because I think it is the most rhetorically interesting response to the common narrative that people are becoming more isolated from each other in public because of the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices and other screens: people walking down the street listening to iPods, patrons using laptops in cafés, people texting during conversations at restaurants and bars, customers on cell phones at checkout counters. This isolation speaks to a common perception about a crisis in sociality. Sherry Turkle recently puts it this way in Alone Together:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a café, or a park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. Each is tethered to a mobile device and to the people and places to which that device serves as a portal. (155)

For this presentation, I am less interested in the veracity of the claims that we are becoming more isolated, less present, and less social in public spaces than I am in material and rhetorical responses to this narrative. Snakes & Lattes is one such response: They opened in Toronto in 2010 as a board game café where there is no wifi and laptops are forbidden. As the owner Ben Castanie explains, “I just don’t want people sitting staring at their screens” (qtd. in Kupferman). This café is particularly interesting in how it attempts to replace “laptops and their attendant air of isolation” with a fairly old form of sociality: playing board games with friends and strangers (Kupferman).

Of course, Snakes & Lattes is not alone in banning laptops in cafés or other devices. The New York Times reports that many New York City cafés are restricting or even banning the use of ereading devices like the Kindle and iPad (Heffernan), and The Wall Street Journal reports that some New York City cafés are covering up electrical outlets in order to deter laptop users — though the rationale behind the latter choice appears to more economic than the ban on ereading devices or Snakes & Lattes’s opening (Alini). Other business owners have attempted to have live poetry readings or jazz bands in order to shift patrons’ attention away from mobile devices and toward each other (“The New Oasis”).

Cafés are a particularly productive site to investigate this tension over mobile electronic devices and public spaces because of their long history as places for public discourse and sociality (e.g., Habermas). Of course, the historical narratives that place so much investment in cafés as sites of iconic or burgeoning public spheres has been called into question, but the strength of the narrative is still quite strong.

In my presentation, I will hypothesize and explore three social anxieties at play in these material responses to (supposedly) isolated, technologically mediated behavior in cafés:

1. Nostalgia for a (real or imagined) vibrant public sphere, symbolized or represented in the café, where people congregated to talk to each other and carry on conversations related to public concern

2. Nostalgia for urban “third spaces” (Oldenburg) of sociality—those places where people congregated, generally not pre-meditated, for social reasons.

3. Discomfort with or cultural anxiety around how people treat others as objects, as part of the ambiance of a place, rather than as full people (in the Kantian tradition). Here I draw on Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy to explore how humans relate (or don’t relate) with each other.

My presentation will explore these more in depth.

Works Cited or Referenced

Alini, Eric. “No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users.” The Wall Street Journal. 6 Aug. 2009. 11 May 2011.

Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Chicago: Open Court, 2005.

Heffernan, Virginia. “Table Disservice.” The New York Times. 11 Feb. 2011. 11 May 2011.

Kupferman, Steve. “New Board Game Café Welcomes You, But Not Your Laptop.” Torontoist. 30 Aug. 2010. 11 May 2011.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Commlunity Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. New York: Paragon, 1989.

The New Oasis: Nomadism Changes Building, Cities and Traffic.” The Economist. 10 Apr. 2008. 11 May 2011.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic, 2011.

credit: Featured Image on Home Page via Joel Washing’s Flickr

This entry was posted in C&W 11, Mobile Devices, publics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Responses to “The Air of Isolation” in Public: C&W 2011

  1. Scot Barnett says:

    Looks great! I think our papers/presentations will work well together–While I don’t draw on Harman specifically in my CW presentation, OOP is definitely running around in my paper (which makes sense, I think, since that’s where my mind’s been for some time now).

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to meeting you next week and talking more about these issues.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Scot! I’m looking forward to meeting and chatting too!

    I’m just sort of getting into Harman and OOP, but Harman’s ideas are resonating with some of what I was already thinking about these issues.

  3. Jorge says:

    Hey Michael! This looks really interesting. The idea of what one does in a retail space like a coffee shop has become inverted for me here in Spain. Here, it is highly unusual for people to work on their laptops at a café.
    On the one hand, I find myself craving a space that is outside of my home and work where I can just sit down and continue working on my laptop. I guess in some sense, I feel like it makes me a member of a shared workspace, almost as if I am feeding off of this joint purpose/determination/concentration.
    On the other hand, it has been quite refreshing to be a casual observer of a highly social group of people.

  4. Michael says:

    Thanks, Jorge! It would be fascinating to do a cross-cultural analysis of public spaces. I remember being in Europe a few years ago, and there were a lot fewer people on laptops in the coffee shops I hung out in (largely in Berlin). There were still some, but more so there were groups of people chatting and having cigarettes with each other.

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