Digital Interface and the Content of Our Thoughts

Enter a large, dilapidated blue-bricked building in Midtown Jackson, MS. The approaching pathway vibrates as intense humming seeps under the rusty aluminum door from the inside. It’s mostly dark within, but there’s a flashing light in the middle, from which sound waves extend outward and tickle each vertebrae of the spine. Eyes and ears are immediately drawn to the object unveiled in the center of this space– a shield.

Or a pyramid-like pointed metal sculpture, to be more precise. And, images from pop culture–Beyonce, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Regis and Kelly– quickly beam across the surface, while a celestial white noise fills the room. Behind the piece, and protected from the onslaught of digital imagery, is the artist, daniel johnson, along with Thomas Eddleman III, an electrical engineer who helped johnson develop the live soundscape.

The performance, entitled “SUBMIND,” is a physical representation of human interaction with digital imagery. I attended this show when I was back home and was immediately struck by the messages johnson projected onto the sculpture. They were pictures that I had not only seen on television, computer screens, phones, and in theaters, but also while merely walking around, while deep in thoughts, and even when alone. The whole thing was a product of virtual technology’s inescapability, as well as a reaction to it.

I interviewed johnson, who told me that SUBMIND was an experiment in thought processes. He wanted to flash images, the same we always see, in a way that is too quick and too ephemeral to actually leave an imprint on the mind, to offer room for observation in a way that allows individuals to still have unmediated, original, and unexpected thought. And more importantly, to provide a way for the observer to maintain the agency of their thoughts —you get to choose what to think.

“SUBMIND for me is an exploration, a way for me to articulate and bring other people into how I am navigating this multi-platform media experience of our contemporary society,” said johnson. “To do it in a way that perhaps gives me more volition in the experience…and to think are there ways that we can organize what we are experiencing to discover something new or unexpected?”

But as I witnessed each clip flicker on this shield, I realized that none of them were new to me. It immediately occurred to me that all these images have existed constantly, and surrounded me whether I want them to or not. It could be true that this take on technological ubiquity–of being continuously impressioned through phones, televisions, Twitter– is now actually just an intrinsic part of everyday life. ‘Unique’ desires and passions are actually just geotagged advertisements on our online profiles.

johnson created a shield to figuratively protect himself from this; but in real life, such a shield doesn’t exist.

“We live in a world of very direct messaging and often experience messages one at a time. And now…they are often nested messages, a meme of a message under a post within my profile. But it’s all very straightforward and and intentional from the transmitter to the receiver,” said johnson.

“Thinking about it as a shield was important because when I got behind it and started projecting on it, I no longer saw the projections. When I wasn’t projection mapping, I could see it kind of all around me and behind me, and I realized that I was in many ways protecting myself from what I was doing to the audience…”

“Behind it I am seeing the images and the videos and the sound in these discrete packets that I’m piecing together that are manageable for me mentally. But for the viewers, what they are receiving is intentionally imperceptible as discrete things…[the shield] is the thing that’s attacking them in some ways, even while it’s attracting them.”

The immediate question that followed for me was– as technology in life becomes more pervasive throughout our lives, will it become increasingly difficult to avoid messaging through our digital interfaces? And if yes, are we running the risk of being unable to maintain the agency of our thoughts? Perhaps, the content of our minds are actually now being defined through mediated sources such as a Facebook newsfeed.

Truthfully, I can’t offer any specific or definitive data on this topic. There no way to measure the percentage of every interaction or thought that is a perception of a digital mediated source. At the same time, it could also be the case that each individual has a unique experience in terms of how technologically-entrenched his or her life is, whether it might be unintentional or not. For example, someone living close to Time Square in New York probably feels overwhelmed by screens, but that may not be the case for someone living in rural Tennessee. And, it may not be the case for someone actively trying to avoid technology altogether!

However from general observation, I feel that, more than before, human interaction through digital interfaces is expanding and becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. In other words, the act of walking down the street and trying to catch a Pokémon through an iPhone is only the beginning of where humans are headed with digital technology. And soon, having such experiences may not be a matter of choice. In fact, I think the answer to this first question is pretty obvious and ends undeniably with a “yes.”

Then of course, we arrive at the second question–Is this really an issue when it comes to the agency and nature of our thoughts? Really to what extent are we (and the content of our minds) glued to our tech? I’m not completely sure. I’ve turned to my phone in a boring meeting, which is kind of rude, but not an indication of my inability to avoid technology. And, I’ve used messaging online to inform my thoughts before writing an article, but that’s not really an example of a manipulated mind.

Still, even though I’m not sure to what extent my thought process is a condition of direct messaging, I recognize that I should probably be aware of it. The problem is ill-defined; but, maybe searching for a solution or a proactive measure is not premature, particularly as technology begins to surround us while we aren’t looking. It’s a matter of double-taking, considering whether what we are doing is really something that we have chosen to do– and not a product of some scheme that a third party has developed to monitor a person’s every move, like, and website visit.

johnson says that just thinking about the topic is a good start for maintaining and searching for authenticity:

“I want to help humans be more sensitive to the informal ways that we’re always communicating with each other. We’re always developing affinities with each other [and] my hope is that… we can apprise it, perhaps we can apprise it above less effective forms of organizing,” said johnson.

“I think a sensitivity to the things that we’re unintentionally doing and an awareness through that sensitivity of seeing the resonances emerge among us allows us to grab on to larger movements that are happening and that have real force behind them.”

*First published on Georgetown University’s Gnovis blog.*



southern food, writing, books, and occasionally outer space

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