I have been thinking a lot about technology and emotion. Most likely, this is because the past month has been an emotional rollercoaster—in the best possible way—and I’ve found myself directing a lot of that emotion at my phone.
Although I officially graduated in December, my partner (also a sociologist) and I both decided to do the whole ceremonial graduation thing at the end of the Spring semester. At the beginning of May, members from both of our families came down to Texas to celebrate. They traveled from Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and New York. This was wonderful. I love my family—immediate and in-laws alike. Like, gooey, gushy, here-take-half-my-sandwich, capital “L” Love these people!! But I may or may not have thrown my phone angrily onto the bed and refused to look at it for a full 30 minutes after an onslaught of text messages and phone calls in which everyone was confused/upset/annoyed about logistical arrangements (okay, I did do this). I also laughed with my brother when we both rolled our eyes and tightened our shoulders upon the simultaneous beeping from both of our phones as family members, who again, we both love very much, contacted us to tell us about a change of plans. Over the course of the weekend, I fake strangled my phone, threw it (see above), twitched my eyes in response to its beckon, and smiled sadly into it after everyone left and the text message beep brought news that we were missed, loved, and the source of pride.
Then, this past weekend, we went house hunting. I recently accepted a job at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. In all of the excitement of obtaining gainful employment, however, I apparently pushed matters like living arrangements to the back burner. As Whitney Erin Boesel (@Phenatypical) detailed in an earlier post, finding a place to live can be something of a challenge. This challenge was sharpened by our recent acquisition of a third dog. For my partner and I, it was far more surprising than it should have been that nobody wants to rent to people with three dogs. Long story short, we decided to buy. This entailed a plane ride, two road trips, and numerous back and forth emails, phone calls, and text messages between us, our Realtor, several sellers, and of course, our family members—all of whom maintained insights on how the process should go. Through all of this, I throttled my phone as it froze while giving us directions to the Real Estate office; I tightly gripped my phone and stared nervously and intently as we looked up properties comparable to the ones in which we were interested; I jumped to answer my phone, almost dropping it in excitement, as I waited to hear if we got The House (we did—pending inspection).
In thinking of my recent technologically mediated emotive responses, I am reminded of an earlier life, one infused with chat rooms, AOL instant messenger, and if I’m being totally honest, illegal downloads of N’Sync songs (don’t worry, I also had some Nirvana, Beatles, and Smashing Pumpkins). In this earlier life, I remember the many feelings that the AOL instant message *bing* would illicit. Sometimes a twinge of excitement as that boy I was crushing on popped textually onto my screen. Sometimes a comfortable giggliness as a girlfriend referenced an inside joke. Sometimes an intense anger as fighting words assaulted the text box in a stream of hostile, overlapping, dings.
Technology did not, and does not, cause these emotions. Rather, technology mediates between the environment, the context, and a bodied emotive response. And the response is, indeed, very much bodied. The bing of an instant message, flicker of a glitching screen, and familiarity of a ringtone rhythm can bring about widened eyes, a quickened pulse, gastrointestinal knots or alternatively, a small swarm of jubilant butterflies. One might tighten hir shoulders, clench hir jaw, hasten hir step, jump up, or alternatively, sink down. In the examples above, I responded in a seemingly automatic way to technological stimuli, much like Pavlov’s dog. Unlike Pavlov’s Dog, however, my responses to the same stimuli were always variable, shifting with situational meanings. The very same text message tune could bring me to hopefully dash for the vibrating object or close my eyes in frustration, determined not to feel obliged towards the message initiator on the other end.
Rather, my mediated emotive interactions with technology more closely reflect Clifford Geertz’ notion that humans very humanness is characterized not by the ability to incorporate culture and complex symbol systems, but, due to lack of instinct, the evolutionary necessity of complex cultural schemas. The human brain does not simply tell the body to act, it pauses, interprets, processes, and only then, brings about response. Similarly, as noted by George Herbert Mead, adult humans act and react, but do so only through interpretation, through the incorporation of myriad clues, cues, and ingrained personal and shared histories. Technologies have always played a role in this, as language is the key symbol system through which cultures and selves are constituted. Technology is intertwined with shared symbol systems, as a mediator, conduit, and representation.
Technologies are part and parcel of our humanness, and humans are emotive. Technologies then, are part and parcel of our emotive selves.
Jenny tweets emotively @Jup83