In the absence of technology
J. Macgregor Wise/Arizona State University

Rachel in Revolution

Rachel in Revolution

Revolution, this past Fall’s new JJ Abrams-produced NBC television series, opens with a scene in a contemporary Chicago apartment. Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) is talking on a mobile phone with her mother. Rachel’s young daughter sits glassy-eyed on the couch watching cartoons refusing to even blink when her mother tries to get her to talk to her grandmother on the phone.1 The even younger son is playing with a tablet computer. And as Rachel talks, she walks over and starts checking things on her laptop, as distracted as her children. This short scene represents, for the show, contemporary daily life. In Revolution, much of this goes away. The power then goes out, all electronic devices cease functioning, planes fall from the sky, and the city descends into chaos. The narrative quickly move 15 years into the future to a small rural community where these children, now young adults, live. The show itself is more about the struggles to survive in the post-apocalyptic future against a violent militia which controls that area of the country, and about exploring the mystery about why the technology failed. The opening scene caught my eye for its depiction (and vague critique) of contemporary media culture. I began looking for other such moments in the show, but there were few that explicitly dealt with media technologies or their absence. CD players show up in a scene or two (briefly and mysteriously turning on, filling characters with longing for the loss of popular music), and a mobile phone shows up in another. This latter scene in the second episode (Sept. 24, 2012) involves the character of Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips), a member of that community, who still carries her iPhone with her, though it hasn’t worked in 15 years. It is finally revealed that Maggie, a British national, was in the United States on business when the power went out, and has been unable to return. She carries around her phone because it holds the only pictures she has of her children, though she cannot access them.

Maggie in Revolution

Maggie in Revolution

The image of Maggie clutching her mobile phone later resonated for me with an image of a character from a very different show. That was an episode of the tween comedy Victorious entitled, “Cell Block.” Victorious is a program on Nickelodeon, set in a performing arts High School in Los Angeles. The opening scene for the Nov. 24, 2012 episode, “Cell Block,” has the students in their drama class barely paying attention to the teacher. All attention is on mobile phones and iPads and a flurry of texting and social media updating. Frustrated, the teacher accuses them of being addicted to their devices and presents them with a challenge: a week without any technology invented since the teacher was born. They accept. As the week goes on the challenge becomes one of girls versus boys as to who will cave in first .2 Despite a couple of jokes regarding other technologies (a record player and a typewriter), the focus is on the mobile phone. It is only the mobile phone that they truly desire, and the phone stands in for a whole regime of technologies (including laptops, televisions, and so on). A key figure in this episode is Cat (Ariana Grande), who seems the most desperate to use her phone (having to be bodily restrained) and who purchases a dog toy in the shape of a mobile phone to carry around with her pretending to text. In the end, mobile phones finally back in hand, the students return to their previous practices without a hitch or hesitation. The show doesn’t even serve up platitudes about moderation.

Cat in Victorious

Cat in Victorious

I am interested in moments when technologies, especially ones that are part of daily habit, stop, break, or are refused or banned. If we carefully examine the debates and issues (and consequences) that arise when a technology goes away, we learn quite a bit about cultural values and generally the shape of technological culture. I have been influenced in this regard by the final chapter of Jerry Mander’s 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (a chapter ultimately more about technology than just television), where he discusses the flabbergasted reactions he would get to his proposal to ban television. That is, the question of the outright rejection of television was so inconceivable, that it wasn’t even on the agenda of questions that could be asked. Why not, at least, ask and explore? Otherwise a technology becomes such a part of the woodwork that we cannot even see it anymore.

But rather than argue for or against banning TV or cell phones, I’m interested today in thinking about what insights we gain when a technology goes away, or is refused. I have an assignment that I give students in my media studies classes from time to time. The full assignment has students swearing off all mass media for a week (unless required for class or work). This leads to interesting debates about what constitutes mass media, of course, but also reflections on their own habits and relationships. They have to deal with silence, and boredom, and the need to converse with other people. I always tell students that I have no presumptions about what their experience will be like; for some it will be easy, for some it will be difficult, and most will be in-between (somewhat irritated at the inconvenience). In the end, I’m not telling students to reject the media, just giving them a space to step back and think about it.

The figures of Maggie and Cat show us not just the banal and commonplace notions that our mobile phones are becoming the site of convergence for all our media uses and that they are a significant part of our social and affective scaffolding (to borrow a term from philosopher Andy Clark) literally becoming our social connections. They show us, with some poignancy, that sometimes the removal of a technology reveals (if not reinforces) our at times deeply affective attachment to them and that all technologies are social through and through. For Maggie, her phone is her children. And for Cat, her phone is a constant stream of connection and (implicit or explicit) affirmation of self; perhaps a transitional object as she negotiates adolescence. Technologies are us, they are not attachments. They are part of how we think and act in the world. In the absence of technology, we find out who we are by discovering who we were.

Three questions, by way of conclusion:

Do you have assignments where students take a media break or go off the grid for a while? What sorts of insights do they tend to gain? Is it becoming more difficult to assign such projects?
What other examples of giving up media or communication technologies have we seen in recent fiction programs? For example, I’m reminded of the moment when the batteries in Hurley’s CD player finally die, in Lost.
Does anyone read or reference Mander’s book anymore? Ultimately, his book is about technological and social determinism, not just television.

Image Credits:
1: Rachel in Revolution (Author’s screengrab)
2: Maggie in Revolution (Author’s screengrab)
3: Cat in Victorious (Author’s screengrab)

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. This stereotypical portrayal of a child as couch potato is obviously a relatively ham-handed critique on the part of the show about our dependence on or addiction to media, but I should point out that even without televisual distractions, many young kids don’t want to talk to grandma on the phone anyway. []
  2. I am bracketing here issues in the program such as race-related jokes and problematic gender politics. []

2 comments

  • I find this very interesting to think about because I know when I leave my phone at home I feel like I’m missing a body part or walked out of the house forgetting pants. Technology is extremely important and it something that I feel has a lot of value in everything we do. Everyone tends to rely on it in one way or another. It is difficult to get around and I admire those who find ways. In high school teachers would assign papers and we had site at least 4 books. This was done because the teachers wanted to make sure we got to the library and physically researched instead of just sitting in front of a computer.

    However, even though I rely so much on technology I think it is important in our society to find ways to take a step back. So many of my friends do not call people anymore, they just text. If they do call and the other person does not answer they will not leave a message. The last time I was asked out by someone was through an email and before that Facebook. And Lord knows I think I am the only person on this planet that still writes hand written thank you notes.

    I feel like technology is a mask that allows people to having something to hide behind. There is a huge issue with this and can be seen on the MTV show “Catfish” which shoes people who pretend to be someone else online by using other people’s pictures and information. Forget the argument of Identity Theft for a moment and this just shows that people rely on technology too much, and we are beginning to trust everything we see online. State Farm even poked fun at this in their “Can’t Lie On The Internet” commercial.

    Things would be different if Technology were not causing problems in the social courtesy department. In the example from “Revolution”, Maggie’s connection to her phone is because she is away from her children and in it has pictures of them. In the example from “Victorious” Kat sees her phone as a lifeline to other people. These both are huge differences because Maggie can still talk to people, connect with people while Kat feels she is lost with out it. I’m afraid the younger generations are going to continue like Kat and our future is going to be full of many people who do not know how to look people in the eye when they talk or how to interact with another human being because all their life they have been glued to some type of technology.

  • “Technologies are us, they are not attachments. They are part of how we think and act in the world.” I must say that I completely agree with this statement. Not to be contrarian, but I’ve never understood why technology is always viewed so negatively – I mean, I understand the arguments, but I really don’t agree with the severity in which people criticize technology’s negative impact on us. People seem to have this fear that technology is this “other” that will rob us of our humanity (you know, like people will be so stuck to their phones they won’t learn how to interact with other people or will never come out of their room). But what people don’t seem to realize is that technology is just as natural a thing as anything else – we’ve created it as an extension of ourselves to further enhance our lives. The Internet is just about as technological a thing as you can get, and look what it has done to revolutionize our world. Everyone has access to all of the knowledge of the world at the tips of their fingers. You can actually video call your grandparents in another state for free and interact with them whereas 10 years ago if you lived away from them, you would never be able to see them. You don’t have to ever be alone now. Your friends and family are always online, a phone call away, a video call a way, a video game away, etc. Humans are social animals and have a drive to be connected to each other, and we have naturally invented and evolved technology to serve that purpose because that drive is what we want in life. Technology is merely the vehicle for what is instinctual to us. And when it comes to people being afraid of other people being glued to technology and that kind of argument, people probably made the same arguments about the telephone, the radio, the television, etc. But our society as a whole generally accepted those technologies and to this day we still use them all the time. If they were really making our everyday lives bad, or destroying our humanity, we would have gotten rid of them a long time ago (and we’ve had plenty of science fiction movies to warn us about the dangers of technology, so we definitely know what to look out for in most cases). But no, such technologies have not gone away – we love to use them because they make us feel more connected to each other, just as with the example you use of the woman who keeps the cell phone on her at all times because it has her children’s photos on it. Technology helps continue that human drive of interaction and communication.
    I think a lot of this anti-technology sentiment has come from films like 2001. That film was probably one of the first films that took a serious look at technology’s impact on humankind. Kubrick obviously viewed technology negatively – one of my favorite scenes from the film is when the astronauts approach the monolith on the moon and immediately want to take a photo of it rather than just examine it with their own senses and marvel at it. The monolith reacts to this by emitting a high-pitched scream, as if telling them to “wake up” – as if trying to assault their humanely senses to get them to use them (after all, the monoliths in that film did drive human evolution, so Kubrick was obviously arguing that we need to abandon technology to evolve, as the main character does at the end of the film when he destroys HAL). Another of my favorite scenes is when the shuttle is traveling to the space station and we hear the Blue Danube classical music go on and on and on for about 10 minutes. If I could criticize my own argument for a moment, I would say technology has definitely made us more impatient since we have such an expectation of immediacy. I think Kubrick realized this emerging trend, which is more severe than ever now, when he made the film. Many of the scenes go on and on and on and on. We see extended shots of rotating space stations, docking ships, and classical music that plays in full. Many of his scenes never seem to end (even the hallucinogenic one at the end) because he’s criticizing our inability to just sit back and enjoy what’s in front of us – the sights and sounds of our world. Once you realize that you should just sit back and relax as you’re watching the film, and to just “take it all in,” those same frustrating scenes become much more peaceful, relaxing, and soothing because you’ve learned to be calm with yourself. I would say this example applies to our own lives as well. People who do not know how to balance their reliance on technology with reality are sure to never experience their senses to their full potential. But people who can sit back and relax once in a while, and who know when they should rely on technology and when not to, are sure to get the best of both worlds.
    But on the other hand, perhaps we have become impatient because our world is so much faster-paced now. And I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that if that’s how the times have become. Taking away technology would be artificial now because technology is all around us and that’s what our world is like. You can’t really tell people to live without technology and then watch them cringe about not having it and then criticize that. After all, if you took away storytelling and writing from the ancient Greeks, I’m sure they would get frustrated and bored too. Technology is just an evolution of that human drive to be entertained and connected. And in our everyday lives anyway, I don’t think us being absolutely reliant on technology is too much of an issue. People just browse on their cell phones when they’re bored, play a video game or two when they’ve hit a creative roadblock, flip on the TV when there’s nothing to do, etc., but most of us still function perfectly fine and know how to integrate technology into our lives because it has become such a large part of everything. And our lives are much more convenient now. Just because things were once a certain way – such as reading books instead of watching TV – does not mean we’re heading in the wrong direction. It just means our society has evolved into something new, just as TV itself has done many times with this whole “flow” idea and the concept of transmedia and making things more integrated and ubiquitous. As you mention, “In the absence of technology, we find out who we are by discovering who we were.” Not learning how to live in this world with what we have available to us is not progress, it’s death, and our world will always be changing. We’ve learned how to use technology to our benefit and we should continue to do so if it means our lives will improve.

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