My writing group workshopped my working draft of Chapter 3 today, and it was a productive conversation. As I was walking home, I was ruminating over exactly what I want to argue in this chapter, which deals with cultural anxieties around the uses of mobile devices and laptops in “public” spaces.
I started to think about the idea, We use objects as interfaces with our environments to create zones of privacy, zones which are never fully in our control and are always permeable, which I don’t think is necessarily that novel. But I was thinking about my cigarette, and the similarities between it and my cell phone — and how I’ll use my smoking habit as an excuse to leave social situations in which I am uncomfortable or feel awkward — to step outside and have a cigarette alone.
Not that I think cigarettes and cell phones function the same, but rather that there is a similarity. I can use either, not to escape a place (though perhaps temporarily), but rather to attempt to control a space, to cut out a piece of the space for myself. But ultimately, I can’t control this space: my privacy is permeable. Even as I was thinking these thoughts, someone “invaded” my personal solitude and ruminations to ask if he could borrow my lighter. Even with headphones in, someone can ask you directions, or for a chair, or to share an outlet, or any numerous things.
Which is perhaps to say it’s a façade of control?
I was thinking about this because time and again, when I talk about this chapter, people ask me what’s the difference between a laptop user in a coffee shop and a book reader, so I started with the similarities — the similarities that, in some ways (but not all), a cigarette shares.
The difference may lie in the degree of secrecy about what one is doing behind a screen — on a Walkman or iPod, what is one listening to? On a screen, what is one doing? A book is less mysterious: we see the cover (though many of us might be aware of the adult Harry Potter readers who put different dust jackets on their book to mask, to make secret, what they are reading).
And of course, there’s the digital elsewhere, which brings in (or takes one to?) electronic others, which other devices don’t do (a book might bring one to an imaginary elsewhere, I suppose)…. more pondering.