From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 24, 2016*: All (sort of) together now.

The internet connects. The web, quite obviously, connects documents to other documents, but that's only a starting point, the basic platform. It also connects its users to an almost limitless repository of information and to an ever growing pool of services. And beyond the web, in an ever-growing number of internet services, perhaps more than anything else, it connects people to people. This connecting has been a central, perhaps even defining, aspect of the internet from its inception. Clearly, the "personal computer" has been an anachronism for well over a decade. Very few people choose to use a non-connected computer; if we're not connected, if the conduit to the "outside" world is closed, something is missing, even wrong. At their very essence, today's computers connect, and when our phones (by definition connecting devices) became computers we found that we're never far from human contact.

And yet, though this ability to connect, this obvious proof of our inter-connectedness, has become a defining aspect of our digital lives, these same digital technologies can separate us. Eli Pariser explained to us the way in which search, ostensibly an objective process, became personalized, and warned us of the danger this holds for the public sphere. In this particular column, however, I'm less concerned with the atomizing aspects of the net, than with what seems to be a desire on our part to square the circle - to be a part of something, yet at the same time be alone.

I've often acknowledged that Boidem columns make a concerted effort to be behind the curve. I've tried to maintain a certain retro take on things, something that allows me on the one hand to be intimately involved in the new technologies I write about, yet also to view them somewhat from the outside. This time, however, I actually thought I was going to write about something new.

A month ago I chanced upon an article about Silent Disco. I thought it was new, though it turns out the phenomenon had garnered write ups in numerous publications, and that the Wikipedia page about it was first posted in 2006. The current Wikipedia entry gives a very clear definition:

A silent disco or silent rave is an event where people dance to music listened to on wireless headphones. Rather than using a speaker system, music is broadcast via a radio transmitter with the signal being picked up by wireless headphone receivers worn by the participants. Those without the headphones hear no music, giving the effect of a room full of people dancing to nothing.
We also learn, both from that page and various articles, that the technology has developed such that today three different musics can be playing in people's headphones so that an observer, or for that matter a partner, won't necessarily know what any particular participant is dancing to. And though I haven't seen any definitive reference to it, I assume, and even expect, that these events can be BYOM - Bring Your Own Music, such that each person dances to whatever music they choose.

At this point the obvious question becomes - are these people dancing together? There's no doubt that they're in physical proximity, and they're also involved in a common activity, but if each person is hearing his or her own music, there seems to be something missing. Passengers on a bus or a train are riding "together", but each has gotten on at a particular stop and gets off at another. During the time all of them (or each of them) is on the bus or train they're "together" in a common activity, but we don't relate to them as having any sort of relationship. They're simply in the same place at the same time. In the past we assumed, perhaps wrongly, that people who left their homes to go to a dance (or a disco, or whatever) did so because they wanted to be with other people. Certainly nothing, besides perhaps some strange inhibition, keeps us from dancing by ourselves, in our own homes, to whatever music we choose. If we choose to do so in a group, then it makes sense to assume that that's because there's an added value in that.

Writing in Nautilus, Daniel A. Gross tells us about the first silent disco experience of LJ Berube who now works at a silent disco company:
"I completely get it now," Berube says. Silent disco turns a private experience into a public one. "You get in your own world and at the same time experience what you're doing with a group. You're in tune with yourself, and with everybody else."
The Nautilus article tries to convince us that this is really nothing new, reminding us, for instance, that reading was also once considered an anti-social activity, and even suggesting that there's a hidden social element at work. Gross quotes Jay Schulkin, a Georgetown University neuroscience researcher who:
points out that activities we now view as social, like reading, were once viewed as anti-social. "Your neighbor might have been reading Charles Dickens, and you're reading something else," he says. Maybe listening in private isn't so different from reading in private. "I don't see why this is necessarily more isolating," Schulkin says.
But it's precisely this comparison that has me scratching my head. Libraries are certainly "social" places, but the social expectation is that each visitor will be focused on his or her own reading. If we want to read in a group there are various ways of doing this, but at least to my mind there's a clear difference between dancing to music and reading a book as social activities. (And Schulkin speaks about "listening in private" which he's probably right isn't very different from "reading in private". But that's considerably different than listening privately while dancing publicly.) Lots of people can sit in a park, each with his or her own book, in the same way that lots of people can sit in a park, each with his or her own earphones. Neither of these is necessarily "isolating", but they meet very clear social expectations. When people go to a dance they do so (or at least they did so) because they expect to hear the same music as others, and hearing that music, and dancing to it, creates a sense of community. That sense of community is a desired result.

In general, the expectation that technologies will bring us together more than they'll separate us seems problematic at the least. Though I earlier acknowledged that the "personal computer" long ago became passť, there's still a long list of tools that seem more directed toward atomizing us rather than bringing us together. And even without the echo chamber of the filter bubble, it would seem that digital tools are moving more and more in the direction of the personal assistant that knows where we are and where we're going, and what we'll need when we get there. Though people probably have more in common than they acknowledge, the information that these assistants will give us will be streamlined to our own very specific needs. Our own personal iTunes libraries are only one aspect of this trend but those libraries and earbuds clearly complement each other.

I find it strange that people would take part in a traditionally public activity like dancing, but doing so privately by listening to their own music. On the other hand, much stranger things have happened, so perhaps I really shouldn't care. But it's hard not to see this trend as a metaphor for where we're headed - toward a public sphere that somehow remains very private, toward a feeling of being together that's rooted in being alone. It's my guess that silent discos are an awkward means of acquiescing to the atomizing pull of digital technologies while still attempting to maintain the social, a way of resisting being overtaken by total personalization. Personally, I don't find it particularly successful, but if that's really the case I can still honor the intent.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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