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The New York Times editors, as Claude Fisher wrote yesterday, “have their meme and they will ride it hard.” That meme is Sherry Turkle, the MIT psychologist that has built a cottage industry (a far away disconnected cottage on the shores of Cape Cod no doubt) around pathologizing the bad feelings people get when everyone around them are on their phones. Fisher does a really supurb job of laying out what is wrong with this latest round of Turkle fanfare so you should go read his piece on his blog, but I want to draw out and add to one point that he makes about the “death of conversation” being an evergreen topic for decades.

I have an article coming out in First Monday in about a month but there is a section that I want to quote from just because I think it is especially relevant to this issue of conversation, attention, and their vulnerability to new technologies. The article argues that online/offline states should be seen as social relationships among groups and not the binary states of an individual. To that point I show how cultural, political, and economic reactions to railroad lines mirror the experiences we have with the Internet today. What follows is a small section about what sorts of social and cultural effects were attributed to railroads:

How online/offline states ––or even their mere availability–– affect one’s mood or behavior shows that control over online and hence offline states is not necessarily just about having or refusing access to a network. Exercising one’s agency can mean gaining control over the digital networks that intersect one’s life, but it can also mean feeling in control over each other’s documentary vision. Research on social (Tokunaga, 2011) and liquid (Lyon, 2006; Bauman, 2013) surveillance has shown that even those individuals who do not intend to appear online can find themselves or their data available to the network without their consent. And as Tufekci (2014) and Pasquale (2015) have shown, we have little way of knowing to what degree our experiences and decisions are the result of networked data acquisition and organization.

The isolation and individuation in both networks at their respective times of early adoption also contributed to exaggerated fears of predation by murders, rapists, and thieves (Schivelbusch, 1986; Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014). Two high-profile suspected murders inside private train cars led to increased fear that trains were sites of particular vulnerability. Similarly the social action online, particularly when it comes to youth, is often viewed in mass media as shot through with predation and illicit activity (Fisk, 2011; boyd, 2014).

Both technologies oddly enough, have also been cast as sites of misandry. Men  reported avoiding sharing private cars with women they did not know, not because of decorum but out of fear of unfounded accusations ranging from improper conversation topics to sexual assault (Schivelbusch, 1986). Whereas the train was a setting for such accusations, the Internet is a stage upon similar fears can not only be realized, but collected, curated, indexed and shared. The burgeoning “Men’s Rights Movement” has found a home in, and is mainly composed of “a loose but loud collection of Internet blogs sites, [and] policy-oriented organizations,” frequented by “a legion of middle-class white men who feel badly done by individual women or by policies they believe have cheated them” (quote from Coston and Kimmel, 2012, 375; also see Kimmel, 2013).

Given this history trains as agents of disorientation, danger, disruption, and removal from the topography of travel, it is remarkable that the American passenger rail service Amtrak announced in late 2014 a pilot writers’ residency program premised on the fact that trains: “don’t just connect small towns to big cities, they connect families, friends and loved ones. They offer a chance to connect with other travelers, experience the American countryside” [10]. This total reversal of what a train strongly suggests that the pronouncements made by critics like Carr and Turkle are a kind of cultural atavism: a retelling of [Popular early 20th century cultural critic John] Ruskin’s handwringing about illegible views and parcel-like passengers. Their claims to authenticity or states of nature miss a larger historical perspective that suggests such concerns are cyclical and arise out of legitimate fears over one’s agency in a rapidly changing world. Such approaches miss a forest of social, economic, and political power dynamics for the trees of a romanticized technological past.

What’s important to recognize here is that technologies make large and intangible forms of systematic oppression, visible and recognizable. What is dangerous about the work of Turkle (and others) is that it takes the latest physical instantiation of oppression and treats it as the cause. This dooms us to never get at the root of the problem while also disengaging from very useful technologies that we might appropriate and use for more liberatory or egalitarian purposes.