#115: Everything in Its Right Place

I’ll never forget where I was when I found out Kobe Bryant died two weeks ago: in front of my computer, scrolling through Twitter. Recalling one’s exact surroundings at the moment we received shocking news is a familiar phenomenon, but lately I’ve found these memories growing more homogenous if I remember them at all, increasingly anchored in one screen or another (if I’m lucky I’ll remember where the screen and I were located). A decade ago when Michael Jackson died, I was on a bus in Chicago; a fellow passenger simply announced the news to all the surrounding strangers, turning the last five minutes of my ride into an impromptu collective grieving session as the text messages started rolling in on whatever non-smartphone I had then. But news hits different now, of course. As more activities, interactions, and information streams move to digital space, screens are how we access them, and while the benefits of this transition are significant—everything from banking to shopping to communicating with loved ones is more convenient and efficient than ever—the cost is that a greater share of lived experience becomes subliminal and unmemorable, divorced from its context and thrown into an entropic slurry with everything else where it just flows by incessantly. This Katherine Miller piece about the atemporality of digital experience describes how jumbled and contextless feeds mix content into concentrated streams of fungible information, and she concludes with the question, “Who can remember anything anymore?”

One of the truly wise maxims—one I didn’t really understand when I was younger—is “don’t shit where you eat.” It affirms the value of stewardship and functional separation: The world is a better place if we confine certain activities to the home, the office, the gym, or a restaurant. Don’t give a bad tip at the place where you’re a regular, be careful about dating your coworkers, and don’t eat pancakes on the subway. Of course, in order to not shit where you eat, you need different spaces dedicated to each activity. It’s essentially an architecture problem, and one that the designers and users of digital spaces have largely abdicated. Aside from specialized platforms like LinkedIn, the feed-based user experience of the contemporary internet offers us cavernous, undifferentiated spaces in which to conduct all of our business. On Facebook and Twitter, where family, friends, professional contacts, trolls, and public figures all gather under the same massive dome, as a 21st-century Hieronymus Bosch painting might depict, we shit where we eat on a daily basis.

The obvious reaction to this condition has bubbled up from the users themselves: a fragmentation of the too-public internet into private chat enclaves, and a concurrent splintering of social media personas into specialized alt accounts that can exist in their externally-facing milieus more comfortably. At best, though, these are hacks that go against the grain of the platforms themselves, or retreats from the very possibility of public existence. They are responses to a world that isn’t designed to encourage a healthy presence in the agora, one where nothing enjoys an appropriate designated place where it’s truly meant to happen. The physical world, meanwhile, has developed a similar predicament, as employment becomes more fluid (a process largely enabled by digital tools) and blends with domestic and social life: Open offices, coworking, and working from home have all eroded the same boundaries between formerly separate spaces that Facebook and Twitter have (Ian Bogost recently wrote a great piece about how the internet has undermined place). Many of us can frequently be found with our laptops in locations ranging from the bar to our beds, furiously laboring away at a seamless hybrid of productivity and content consumption, while the bathroom is an ideal place to escape from social company in order to fire off an email non-disruptively. All of these practices seem ordinary despite widespread awareness that they’re not quite right. Rather than merely adapting ourselves, we should demand more: segmented environments that provide different places for the different things we actually do.

This week, I joined Nick Pappageorge on his podcast to talk about AirPods and the effects of always-on audio consumption in the urban environment. Nick started Audio-First as a newsletter and it’s evolving into an interesting hybrid of written and recorded material—it’s been a great read/listen so far, and I recommend subscribing!