Today I came across this quote by artist Mark Leckey: ‘Technology has put us in this strange place where we are never fully present in a strange sense, or our presence is distributed’. (Frieze Magazine, September 2017, p. 15).
I’ve thought a lot in the past (and in this blog) about what technology does to our relationship to ‘things’ but I haven’t previously thought about what technology does to our relationship to ‘place’. It could be argued that ‘place’ is just a big ‘thing’. We have memories associated with place just as we do with a thing.
We are addicted to the feelings that we get from memories and we have always wanted to capture those memories so we can recreate how we felt at that time / in that place at a future date. With the aid of art and then photography and video, we have been able to capture our memories of place so that we can return to them and share them with others (when we are back home from our holiday or when we have moved on to a different place).
Now, in the Internet world we can record those feelings by a more constant, rapid capturing of ‘place’ than we could previously. We capture place with our smartphones as it changes during the day, as we move around it and as time flows while we are there. We then upload the images on social media. We do this to cement the memories in our mind and to, perhaps more importantly, share our ‘good’ feeling with others. It is the 21st-century equivalent of the holiday slide show party, only now we all get an invite whether we want one or not.
So what does this do to our relationship to ‘place’, both while we are still in the place in question busy taking selfies of ourselves with the place in the background and afterwards when we are looking back at those photos, and counting the number of the likes and smiling at the comments. Are we able to enjoy the moment of being in the place in the same way we did before the Internet and social media? Does the memory of place change? Will our memories of the place, the images, the comments be stronger than the memory of the physical place and the related experiences that don’t include the act of sharing on social media?
Related to this, another question is how do our memories and our experience of memory change when we can readily access the images of ‘place’ from our past experiences on the Internet? For example, recently, I was able to find images on the Internet of the inside of my grandparents’ house. The house’s interior looked completely different from my memory of it as it had been decorated and changed many times over the years, yet seeing it and accessing the images so easily, gave me a really unsettling feeling. I’m not sure I liked the feeling. Suddenly, the images in my head of the house morphed and changed. They became tainted by the images I saw on the Internet. I immediately regretted looking for the house. My notion of place in this case, came out of my memory and into the open, virtual world. I know it is obvious to state that my experience of this place isn’t my own, of course it isn’t; it has been shared by many. However, seeing this ‘place’ from my past on the Internet made me feel the intrusiveness of other people sharing my memory. I didn’t like that the image of this particular place that I had held for so long had completely changed and no longer existed. It is a bit like Trigger’s Broom, or the Ship of Theseus paradox. The question I was asking was: is it the same place? The answer is both yes, and no, just like Trigger’s Broom. I’ve already written about that though.
This time, however, I am thinking more about the impact of the Internet on memory and place. If our sense of ‘presence’ in a physical place is less intense, then are we simply displaced? Do our memories scatter across the ether? Do we simply float around on the edge of the virtual world, skirting the real one at the same time? Are we no longer able to attach our memories to place? Are they now attached to our recording of the memories? I imagine myself floating just above the real world, attached to this beautiful, shiny and perfectly-formed bubble that floats in the sky and is carrying me further and further away.
I wonder whether it is possible whether the physical ‘place’ will disappear from our lives completely. I hope not. Perhaps, more likely, it will just get gradually shaved, or diluted, but it will never disappear completely, a bit like Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles.
As an addendum to this blog: I’ve just come across Zeno’s Paradox of place: if everything that exists has a place, then the place has a place, and that place has a place, ad infinitum. Go forth and contemplate that!