Connection, experience, value…then lunch

I bite my nails. I try to be surreptitious when I do this in public but holed up for months under lockdown there was no need to disguise my bad habits. I wrote my dissertation partly about this experience. Much of it was concerned with the identity of places and people. I felt like I was constantly jumping between scales. I envisaged identity as concentric, spreading out from the acutely personal to the familial, local, national, global – now, I think of the image of a root cross-section. I would remember things like faking illness to get out of primary school, and then turn into thinking about what sort of role the shift at the end of the last glacial maximum played in the formation of East London. Hopping from thought to thought, occupying individual tiles in the mosaic of my conscious identity, this movement sometimes easily traceable, at other times opaque or disorientating, like falling through space.

Remembrance sometimes gives us this falling experience – falling through ourselves – and the internet brings distant things close. Getting stuck in memory can induce feelings of nostalgia; a painful longing for home. Getting stuck on the web can induce a sort of schizophrenic disorientation. It is difficult to outline the qualitative difference between these sorts of experiences which play with distance, and experiences in which we are more – for want of a better word – present. The difference is difficult to describe. Think of zoom calls, which many of us have had our fair share of in the past two years or so. Some people feel more comfortable meeting virtually, but the point is we can feel the difference between this and being in-person – an adjective I don’t remember using much prior to the pandemic – as we can feel the difference between now and then in moments of deceptive but meaningful nostalgia.

“Ranunculus root cross section – 100x” by Marc Perkins – OCC Biology Department is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Our experiences of the digital realm and new technologies are often defined by their strangeness and unfamiliarity, as when an amputee learns how to move a bionic arm. The person needs to re-learn how to use something that is no longer there, and also needs to add new knowledge to this. This is an extreme example, but it is demonstrative of the necessity of learning how to use new technology in order to perform actions well and, also, to make sense of the present, and how it connects to the past and the future. On a collective level, our models of human experience and action are rooted in a past where technologies like virtual or augmented reality were absent. MiMU gloves allow the wearer to make music by moving their hands. Imagine showing this to someone twenty years ago. Prior models, prior maps, allow for change, divergence, modulation. The other day I put on a VR headset for a few minutes. I didn’t quite know how to make sense of the experience. It created and required a new way of perceiving and understanding things, but one that was connected to existent models of perception. What does all this have to do with Bath’s creative industries and the city’s creative ecology?

If the future is going to be increasingly defined by digital and tech, we should equip ourselves with the know-how to use these tools well, and with the knowledge to better navigate the worlds and places in which we live – a sort of digital and tech literacy, coupled with an ecological literacy. I cannot avoid thinking about democracy and power in this context. In the digital world borders and boundaries collapse like curtains of air, and new technology is constantly crossing into new territories. The distance between where we are and where we were is palpable, and the speed with which we traverse that distance is sometimes overwhelming. Without the ability to make sense of this experience, our actions and interactions might continue to be confusing, odd, counterproductive. I think about connection, how you cannot be connected to something you are. This makes distinctions important, but the more categories there are, the more disconnected I feel, the greater the need for connection as an antidote to this. I think about the research project and wonder how this writing connects to it.

Digital, tech, and ecological literacy can also aid in the process of collaboration – this is a key part of the research. I think effective collaboration can only be achieved by understanding how different, and sometimes disparate, parts fit together, but this process of fitting together can be misunderstood, guileless or sluggish without a frame. A frame both creates and implies value – aesthetic, social, relational, ecological, economic – and value is something which is defined by a ‘we’. Who comes to be part of this ‘we’? Who defines what is valuable? I lose myself for a while, and then think about the opening line from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. To misquote: I write this sitting in the Locksbrook café. I commend myself on a sustained period of nail growth. I feel compelled, partly by a desire for lunch, to stop writing here.

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