To read Christine Rosen's article The Age of Egocasting, click .
GODSPY: What led you to write about "egocasting"?
Christine Rosen: I wanted to explore the cultural impact of a relatively humble device—the remote control—and the more I studied the way the remote control had changed television in the past thirty years or so, the more interested I became in how other personalized technologies are changing our expectations about how we receive news, information, and culture. And this eventually led me to egocasting.
What role does technology play in your own life?
I use a computer to write and also own a cell phone, although I rarely turn it on. I have used any number of remote controls (and misplaced several of them over the years). I don't own an iPod, but I spent time using my sister's iPod to gain a better understanding of it—it is an elegantly designed, user-friendly technology—and might end up owning one myself one day. I don't think I'll ever get a digital video recorder, however, as all of the available evidence suggests that this is a technology that encourages watching more television, and I'm not interested in doing that.
Technologies such as cell phones, iPods, portable DVD players, and the like have allowed us to create little digital cocoons for ourselves.
Were there experiences in your own life that led to your current critique of personal technology?
I've been struck by the transformation of social space in recent years and how technologies such as cell phones, iPods, portable DVD players, and the like have allowed us to create little digital cocoons for ourselves. I've seen this on airplanes, trains, buses, and in waiting rooms—and I've seen it increase exponentially in the past ten years. As a result, I think we're seeing a concomitant erosion of civility in public space. Even walking down the sidewalk, people are often on the phone, listening to music—and basically they have removed themselves from the space mentally, but not physically.
In your article you talked about "absent presence." What exactly did you mean by that?
Broadly speaking, "absent presence" means being physically in a space but absent mentally from what is going on around you. Sociologists such as Erving Goffman in the 1950s studied the unspoken rules of social behavior in public space and what happens when people violate them. Cell phones and iPods encourage absent presence because they send a very clear message to those around you: I'm unavailable. This violates those unspoken rules and the expectations we all have about behavior in public space. Today, our technologies enable us to shut others out but also, in the case of cell phones, to impose our one-sided conversations on others in a way that we haven't been able to do in previous eras.
You also talked about how more and more we experience culture in a "mediated" way, which doesn't bode well for our culture. But how would you try to convince someone not to download a free symphony for his iPod in a matter of minutes, and instead spend the time, money, and effort to go to a real symphony?
I wouldn't. I would tell someone to download the symphony and make an effort to hear it performed live by professional musicians. The instant gratification of listening to the iPod symphony is not bad in and of itself. But the time, effort, and money expended to hear that same symphony performed live will, I think, lead to a different kind of appreciation for the music.
What are we missing when we listen to music on an iPod instead of at a live performance?
We miss the unique and extraordinary experience of watching and hearing music being made. Downloading an aria from "Aida" to listen to on an iPod is simply not the same musical experience as sitting in a darkened concert hall seeing and hearing the opera performed. The same is true for other forms of music like jazz or rock. Music is meant to be heard in live performance; we are meant to watch and listen to musicians whose performances will change from one night to the next. That is part of the thrill of live performance—you never know what might happen.
Technology itself is not dangerous or destructive; it's how we choose to use it.
It's clear that you're not against technology as such. Can you explain what it is about technology that you feel is most dangerous or destructive?
Technology itself is not dangerous or destructive; it's how we choose to use it. In the case of personal technologies, I think the most worrisome trend is our unwillingness to come to terms with the unintended consequences of our uses of them. We love the convenience and ease of our cell phones and TiVos and iPods but don't want to think about the way they can also change our interactions—with strangers in public space, with our family and friends—in ways that are not always positive. Coming to terms with these negative side-effects doesn't mean we have to stop using these technologies. It means becoming more self-conscious about their effects on others, and on ourselves.
You wrote about this over-emphasis on personal control and convenience as a pseudo-religious devotion, a "fetish". What do you mean?
I mean that it is now so easy to satisfy our personal whims (because of technology) that we now seem to believe that those individual whims should be supreme. We have made a fetish of them because we can. I think this didn't happen quite so dramatically with earlier technologies because those technologies didn't allow us to cater to our tastes with such precision. One television remote control does the same thing as another; but one TiVo (digital video recorder) does not—unlike the remote control, it has been programmed by a specific user to bring specific things directly to him. This gives the TiVo user a much greater feeling of control than the old channel-surfer with his remote control.
Is there anything good about highly personalized technologies like the iPod?
TiVo, iPod, and other personalized technologies are marvelously good at providing us with a sophisticated array of entertainments, and there is nothing wrong with being entertained. But we are spending an increasing amount of time entertaining ourselves in this way, and there are only so many hours in the day. In terms of how we choose to use our free time, some technological entertainment is fine; but if that is all we are doing, there are opportunity costs that will be felt in other areas of our lives—particularly our relationships with our families, friends, and communities.
It is now so easy to satisfy our personal whims (because of technology) that we now seem to believe that those individual whims should be supreme.
Speaking of the unexpected, you imply in your article that it's healthy for a democratic society if individuals don't have too much control. Why?
I would not argue for the stifling of personal control and individual choice in democracy, or for the imposition of certain kinds of art, music, or literature by cultural elites, government, or any other self-appointed czar of culture. But the healthy exercise of choice requires responsibility, because we must face the often—unintended consequences of our choices. It's hard to find anyone who would argue against freedom and control in this country. But I think the question we fail to ask often enough in our democracy is "What are control and freedom for?"
The historian wrote about a "new barbarism" that's spreading throughout society despite dramatic technological progress. Do you think there might be a causal link between the two?
I wouldn't go so far as to say technology is contributing to the decline of western civilization. I think we're far too unreflective about our use of technology, and far too enamored of its possibilities. This tendency will continue to pose challenges to our understanding and creation of art, literature, and music. It also, in other arenas such as genetic science, poses serious challenges to our understanding of what it means to be human. The question that should always be on our minds is: should we do certain things (such as choose the sex of our children) simply because we've figured out that we can?
Do you think these technologies are undermining the element of the transcendent in real culture, especially music, and the only fitting attitude to it, humble contemplation?
Yes, and not just in music—the mass reproduction of great works of art as commodities (Van Gogh coffee mugs, Monet umbrellas) is similar. When our individual preferences and opinions become the only guide, then how is humility before art even possible? Our attitude today seems increasingly to be: If I personally don't like it, it must not be worth liking.
Only by venturing beyond convenience will we confront the challenges—to our tastes, our opinions, our assumptions—that are the beginning of genuine understanding and respect for our fellow human-beings.
Why is it important to "venture forth into the world that lies beyond our convenience"?
Because only by venturing beyond convenience will we confront the challenges—to our tastes, our opinions, our assumptions—that are the beginning of genuine understanding and respect for our fellow human-beings. There is nothing inherently wrong with convenience and entertainment; I just don't want to see them become our first principles.
You wrote that if the power to control what we hear, see, and read goes to excess, it would be "perilous indeed". What do you foresee happening if this trend in egocasting continues?
My concern is that we will become so used to consulting our own preferences and opinions, and have them so easily catered to by our technologies, that we will reject the notion of objective standards in art, literature, and music altogether. I also worry that egocasting will further encourage political polarization.