Archive for the ‘absence’ Category

On my walk, a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring, I happen to pass the neighbourhood playground. A number of mothers and fathers are watching over their little ones. By the swings, two young women are busy with their little kids. Or rather: both are talking in their phones and maybe not so busy with their children, just now and then giving them a swing. Their absent minded, mechanical movements contrast sharply to the intensity in their conversations. I continue my afternoon stroll, wondering about what I have just seen.

I notice that my spontaneous reaction is something like: Is that a way to take care of one’s children, just keeping them quiet by this pacifying movement and instead being occupied by the chitchat? My next thought is: What do I know? Maybe both of them have spent the whole day with their kids and right now, just when I pass, both of them happen to get phone calls. In that case, what I see is an exception – and also a good example of multi-tasking.

My first response is undeniably moralizing, but I guess I am not alone. I remember having read indignant letters to the editor about mothers and fathers with prams, listening to music in the headphones or talking in their mobiles. Obviously there is something important to comprehend here. First of all, it is a generation thing. I am old enough to have forgotten all the time spent with children that gave you almost no time think your own thoughts or to talk with other grown-ups. My forgetfulness makes it easy for me to judge, rather than being generous. Second, it’s not just about technology. Parents have always been slightly inattentive to their children now and then, absent-minded or busy working or talking with their peers. Communication technology just makes it more conspicuous.

To continue my speculations, what is really interesting here is the presence of two invisible, absent people. Neighbourhood playgrounds are places where one is expected to be friendly to people who probably live in the same area. The kids are supposed to see other children and, hopefully, start playing with them. And then their parents can have superficial conversations about their children, talks that may or may not lead to some kind of deeper experience. Some people even make new friends at the playground, I have heard. But these two women, it seems, prefer to talk to people they already know, friends or maybe family members, people they trust and really know how to talk with. With the mobile, the playground becomes a place where you can enjoy the company of your absent friends. And the women’s leisurely behaviour makes me believe that their calls are within the circle of well-known people.

No matter how long or to whom the women were talking, this episode demonstrates a type of situation that did not exist before the conquest of mobile telephony. Place is different today. Instead of being surrounded just by strange or vaguely recognised faces, the mobile affords the absent presence of those you really enjoy talking to. This also should mean that it is already existing communities – in the sense of personal networks – that flourish with the mobile. But apart from that, a number of questions come up: Do people go out more often just because they have the opportunity of staying in touch? Or do they care less about bringing friends along, because they are connected all the time anyway? Do parents improvise meeting in places like the above to make sure to have F2F company? Do frequent mobile users shut out the opportunities of the public by spending more time within their communities, or are they rather more exposed for strangers due to spending more time in public environments?

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She is standing in line in front of us at the supermarket, a woman in her 30ies, talking in her mobile phone. Now she smiles at us, apologising, and runs away to get something she has forgotten to put in her trolley. Just when the cashier is done with the customer before her, she returns with a package of cream. While putting her goods on the belt she continues talking in the mike of her handsfree. “Have a look in the wardrobe”, she says to whoever is on the phone. “At the very back!” Now it is time to pay. She ends the call, pays and packs her stuff.

What is going on here, on New Year’s Eve at the supermarket? The woman is doing her shopping, but she seems to be in another place. By what we hear, we get the impression that she is directing someone who is looking for something. Maybe it is a person in her flat, perhaps her husband. What it is that may be found at the very back of the closet we are not told. But the woman has bought ingredients for a dessert, so probably there is a party coming up. And on such occasions, one sometimes has need of things that, most of the time, are stowed away. Perhaps on the top shelf or at the very back of the wardrobe.

In another sense, it is a question of presence and absence. While she, quite mechanically, puts her things to the cashier, she is focused upon the search at home for whatever it might be. We can imagine her mind browsing through mental images of probable locations where it may be stored. But this commitment does not prevent her from – albeit mechanically – being active in the place where she is present in the flesh. And she is definitely here, her bodily presence is undeniable, but still she seems to be far away. No one would dream of trying to make conversation with her – well, perhaps someone who misinterpreted what she says to be directed to him or her.  However, the woman’s absence is not completely opaque for us. We cannot help having ideas, based upon very few facts, of what is going on in her home, if that is where she calls.

What is interesting with this incident? The very possibility of virtual participation in remote places and in real time appeared with the telephone networks more than a hundred years ago. But when the telephone systems become wireless, this possibility is no longer limited to the specific locations of fixed telephones. The place for mediated interaction is to be found more or less anywhere.

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