The Counterculture of Our Future: ‘Jacked In’ versus ‘Checked Out’

January 16, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Stuff, Tech / 56 Comments /
An image pulled from DeviantArt by CrapsY (username).
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It’s appropriate, I think, that the first post of this blog covers a subject characterized by all four categories of the blog’s tagline –  “media, technology, culture and life.” The idea for the post — the emergent counterculture of those who reject a world in which outward-facing identities are increasingly characterized by social media — arose from two very different conversations I recently experienced.

An image pulled from DeviantArt by CrapsY (username).

The first was with an old friend, Michael P. (whose facebook profile I took the below quotation from), who forsook the life of  a Harvard-graduated consultant to work in a coffee shop and live as a Central Square hipster. Our conversation, which ranged from ‘catching up’ to ‘big issues,’ gravitated toward Michael’s thoughts on an emergent counterculture that he termed ‘the unplugged’ — that is, those who refuse to subscribe to a lifestyle that increasingly depends on modern technology. A proponent of this lifestyle, Michael made significant efforts in the last couple years to reduce his online footprint, pare down his digital interactions, and do things like increase the size of his record collection and work on a screenplay about an 80′s record producer.

As I understood them, Michael’s views (and those of ‘the unplugged’) are premised on the notion that technology detracts from our lives’ experiences by drawing our attention away from our real-world experiences and interactions. Michael posits that those who are ‘plugged in’ misguidedly reify technological advances as ‘progress.’ While technological artifacts seemingly make our lives better, they actually distance us from one another and definitively human activities — e.g., expressing ourselves through art and engaging the world through our tactile senses (sound familiar?).

The ‘unplugged’ view, I think, tends to overly romanticize the past and a (purportedly) simpler way of socializing, expressing oneself, and interacting with the world. Though I understand the love for and actually tend to prefer activities that more intimately (in a physical sense) connect me to the product of my work, I (and, I think, many others) view technological artifacts as just another set of tools we can use to interact with the world — e.g., a paintbrush, a pencil, a pair of glasses. In other words, technological advances most directly affect media, not expression. Or, more simply, technological advances most directly affect the tools we use, not how we use them.

That said, the forms of expression undeniably change as a result of the given media through which they are expressed. The notion of ‘friendship,’ for instance, has changed dramatically. In a world where roughly 30 percent of the facebook friendships of those between 18 and 24 are people whom they have never actually met, ‘friendship,’ it seems, certainly means something less substantial than what it perhaps once did. For photographers, the development of Adobe’s Creative Suite has changed how they view their craft.

In this light, I think the dichotomy between ‘unplugged’ and ‘plugged in’ is misguided. The analogy implies a reliance upon a sort of technological energy for functionality. But technology is more than that–at least for me. It enriches, enhances and augments my reality; it creates opportunities to share information, connect with others and learn about things I never would have been able to otherwise. In many ways, my subscription to a life filled with technological artifacts is more akin to the Matrix’s ‘jacking in’ — that is, it’s a choice to participate in a whole other experience of reality (I recognize the negative implications that this term may hold. My use of this term is also an admission that there is certainly something lost in exchanging the simplicity of more immediate physical interactions with the world for a view shaped by a world in which technological advances are a given). In contrast, a life without technology, I think, is a rejection of participation in this world and its benefits — and so, I will term it ‘checking out.’

This distinction leads me to think of the second conversation I had on this subject. During my final interview presentation with Jack Morton Worldwide, where I now work in business development, Liz Bigham, the Director of Brand Marketing, asked me if I perceived a pull-back reaction to a world saturated with social media — a desire for real, physical connections with other people. During the interview, my first response was that the nature of interactions is being transformed by media and the capabilities of technology. That is, the line between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ experiences would continue to erode as time progressed, and any desire for ‘physical’ experiences could eventually be entirely satisfied by virtual ones.

But thinking back on this question, I’m not certain this is the case. I anticipate that the ideological divide between ‘jacked in’ and ‘checked out’ peoples will only increase as technologies transform our experiences of reality more dramatically. Michael’s disdain for technology isn’t fading quickly, and there’s something intuitively appealing about his rejection of the ‘jacked in’ life that evokes sympathy. Don’t I also enjoy it when I get out to nature, leave behind my cell phone and computer, and cut myself off from the technological world? But my memory of the practicality of using technology always seems to win out. I like having a world of information at my fingertips, the people I know available at the touch of a button, and the host of possibilities technology provides me. I suppose, though, that’s the divide–some people don’t.

But perhaps there is something to my initial intuition in my conversation with Liz, and the ‘checked out’ counterculture will ultimately have less ammunition to fuel its ideology. At the core of disdain for technology, I think, is disdain for ‘the complex,‘ a purportedly enhanced reality in which our actions must conform to the constraints placed upon them by the limitations of technology. What this disdain fails to recognize is that accompanying the trend of technological complexity is an ever-increasing tendency toward simplicity in design. User interfaces are becoming more elegant and intuitive, despite increasingly complex back-ends. Physically, technological artifacts — e.g., televisions — are also becoming less cumbersome and streamlined. This tendency toward design simplicity will only become more apparent as  futures waves of technological artifacts reach us.

My guess: ‘checked out’ people will resist until Apple comes out with a strong enough ad campaign for its iTablet.

“As I look around the contemporary American scene I am puzzled by what seems generally to pass for a historical object or monument…With us the association seems to be not with our politically historical past…what we cherish are mementos of a bygone daily existence without a definite date. Archie Bunker’s armchair will recall–at least to the present generation–not only the many hours agreeably spent watching television, but also the environment, the setting, of a popular program, though not necessarily the program itself.”
- J. B. Jackson

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56 Comments

  1. Stephen

    January 21, 2010
    / Reply

    Nice post, Steven. I had it open in a tab for some buried amid the wash of information I'm always drowning in and finally got around to reading it. There's a recent NYTimes article about how today's youth are 'jacked in' all the time these days. I wonder if new generations growing up and learning to live at once in the real world and online won't miss the experience of living 'checked out' completely.

    • Steven

      January 22, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading, Stephen. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it.

      I haven't seen the NYT article, but would love to check it out, if you don't mind posting it in the comments when you get the chance. I'm sure the other readers would appreciate it too.

      You bring up an interesting point: can one miss an experience s/he's never had -- i.e., of being 'checked out'? If all experiences of future generations are just different grades of a 'jacked in' lifestyle (for them, watching an old-school TV with no cable is being 'checked out'), can they even empathize with the notion of being completely 'checked out'?

      This question reminds of a question that arises in epistemology: what are 'genuine' or 'veridical' experiences? What is a 'checked out' experience? Who decides what that means? I think the notion rests on a comparative standard of the current state of technological advancements. While our grandparents' lifestyles may be 'checked out' to us, to their grandparents, they probably would seem very 'jacked in.' But, in their case, I think the more appropriate distinction would be 'plugged in' or 'unplugged,' as their technological experiences were much less about interactivity and the free-flow of information.

  2. Libby

    February 11, 2010
    / Reply

    I was told to leave "cute messages" on your most recent blog post. However, Google Buzz offers me little material to be cute about.

    Also, Google owns both Youtube AND Picassa. H:0, W:2498230948278346298.

  3. Merritt

    February 11, 2010
    / Reply

    check out this reaction too-- http://www.salon.com/tech/how_the_world_works/2010/02/10/google?source=newsletter

    It's tough to say whether google as a monolith will continue to just be efficient and integrated, or eventually become monopolistic and lazy-- certainly, I agree that even though we may feel like the social networking space is saturated (as in, there are plenty more sites out there and I'm not interested in joining them), different levels of convenience and connectivity--including some of the selectivity to target non-professional networks as you describe--seems tempting.

    Worth noting that there may be some new security concerns as the Google becomes the repository of everything net-centric (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/03/AR2010020304057.html?referrer=emailarticle on the new NSA-Google security access partnership and the potential nice and scary collaboration between FBI and ISPs: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-10448060-38.html?tag=newsLeadStoriesArea.1). More subtle Internet offenses that are criminal under 18 USC 1030's stipulation of "authorized access" may have nuanced Big Brother effects, for example allowing employers to surveil and criminalize employees who use their computer for whistleblowing.

    The more dependent we are on Google's power, the more potential for authorized and unauthorized access to its repository of data-- That being said, for as long as their generativity continues, I'll probably be on board!

    M

  4. Joe Baldwin

    February 20, 2010
    / Reply

    I want to thank the blogger very much not only for this post but also for all his previous efforts. I found stevenduque.com to be very interesting. I will be coming back to stevenduque.com for more information.

  5. Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist

    February 26, 2010
    / Reply

    It can also replace E-Reader and Kindles, because it allows you to read books on the iPad. Now publishers and authors need to get on that and make PDF downloads of their books available.

    I still can't afford an E-Reader or Kindle, but I plan to wait for a few more years until it becomes relatively affordable, maybe instead of those two, I'll get an iPad someday if it still proves to be popular in 2, 3 years.

  6. Scott

    March 2, 2010
    / Reply

    I am not sure why the current IPhone couldn't do most of what you have listed above. I am all for bigger and better but the software and monetizing it will lead to better. The device is just an enabler.

    • Steven

      March 2, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading, Scott; I hope you continue following the blog.

      Your point, I think, touches on an interesting truth about a lot of Apple products: there many alternative products that can do exactly the same thing, or at least achieve the same core functionality, as most Apple products -- e.g., iPods vs other mp3 players. Beyond outright alternatives, you're also right in highlighting that the iPhone could likely do most of what is described in the article. That said, there is also no reason why a netbook with a wireless card could not perform pretty much the same basic functionalities.

      The key differentiators, I think, are two characteristics at the core of Apple's brand truth: first of all, superior design and, secondly, user interface (which can arguably be subsumed into the category of 'design,' though I think that 'user interface' has more to do with the operative aspects of a thing, which 'design' does not necessarily imply).

      While both characteristics knock most alternative products out of competition with the iPad, only the second is relevant to your question. The key difference will be user interface, and your response touched on what will be so different about it. Frankly, size does matter. Having a video chat with someone or creating a video blog is certainly more pleasing on a larger screen, just as it is more desirable to watch a program on a larger TV. Not only that, but the size of the iPad hits the sweet spot in terms of being both sufficiently large to make things visually pleasing, while also being light enough and small enough to be a mobile device. Enough plugging Apple products.

      You're right, though, that the device will just enable or unleash whatever potential lies in the functionalities, which will be applied by developers. But I think we'll all agree that creating a platform is certainly important too. I think it's a matter of perspective, too. I'm sure many would probably say that operating systems are more important than computers. But hey -- there would be no computers without operating systems.

      I hope I've addressed your questions sufficiently, and that I didn't entirely miss the point.

      Thanks again for reading, and I hope to hear from you again, Scott!

  7. Richard

    March 3, 2010
    / Reply

    Can i just say i think you are wrong, in Europe and Asia we have phones and networks which support Video calling

    As for the ebook agrument, well thats all it is - The thing is it's just too big I perosnally think this is the bad apple in the barrel with Apple products and the price point in Europe is way to high for people to buy a nice to have esp when essentially the new phones by HTC etc have 1Ghz processors and just as much memory, plus 2 cameras and it fits in your pocket

    • Steven

      March 3, 2010
      / Reply

      First off, Richard, thanks for reading.

      And secondly, thanks for throwing your support behind my position on video phone functionality; I appreciate it. I had no idea that in both Europe and Asia there are phones with video calling capabilities. It seems as though you're truly "living in the future."

      I do think, however, that there are definite logistical problems with creating a vast enough infrastructure to create carrier coverage that's commensurate to what you have in European countries and parts of Asia (i.e., Japan and HK), where the land area is significantly smaller than the US. I wonder, though, given my experience with using a Mifi device and a laptop, whether this can be surmounted sooner than even I predict.

      And separately, again I find myself alone in thinking that the size of the iPad will actually be somewhat convenient, though in a different class than phones. Perhaps I'm off in my intuitions, but I think that the iPad should be classified in an entirely different category. Imagine, for instance, that you can watch streaming video in a static position on a multimedia publication, while also scrolling through supplementary information. Needless to say, these types of publications have not been created yet, but this type of functionality would be extremely tough to do on a cell phone-sized screen.

      Thanks again, Richard, and, as with others, I hope to see commenting on the blog again soon!

  8. Matt

    March 3, 2010
    / Reply

    Im sorry but i disagree about how you feel the Ipad will change things.
    The iphone has the same capabilities and is already a success. I feel the limitations on this make it a step backwards.

    If the next gen Iphone has the front facing camera you refer to, then i can see your suggestions possible. But w/ the Iphone. Not this oversized machine.

    I politely disagree with your thoughts that people would prefer to lug around such a large device. The pocket size iphone is easier to use. I would never carry something around like this to use as a phone in a bag.... thats reverse to the late 80s bag phones -- no thanks! :-) I see your point with video phone, but the iphone theoretically would have the same capability.
    We are still several years out from video phones, not due to the phone technology, but rather the carriers' inabilities to support such a thing.

    The only thing ipad has "better" in my opinion is a better processor.

    Great blog site btw !
    Cheers!

    • Steven

      March 3, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading the blog, Matt, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! I hope that, despite our disagreements, you'll continue to follow the blog.

      First of all, I agree that the iPhone has been a success and will continue to be a success. But I don't think its success precludes the possibility of a larger product, as I think the iPad and iPhone will ultimately compete in different spaces. Instead, I think the iPad is aimed at the myriad netbooks that have emerged over the past few years. As many will note, however, the iPad is much more costly with less juicy hardware. I think, though, that the comparative advantage Apple has in design and user interface, not to mention marketing and culture development around its products, is enough to lure in most.

      Secondly, I don't think the size of an iPad is prohibitive, just as I don't think the size of a netbook or laptop is prohibitive. I think the versatility of carrying it around will certainly be different than a cell phone, but I think it's unique functionalities and ability to display multimedia publications will make it more desirable, at least for certain operations, than cell phones.

      And thirdly, I think you might be wrong about how far we are from having video phones. This past summer, I traveled across the country with a laptop and Mifi device (essentially a wireless card that can handle up to five users at a time), and I was able to engage in video chat on my laptop while driving in the car, a fact which makes me believe that video phones/pads are not too far off.

      I can't disagree with you about their being nothing, at face value, that the iPad does better than other gadgets (like the iPhone or netbooks), but there was also nothing better at face value about iPods versus other mp3 players -- except (and yes, I'm saying it again) design and user interface. These characteristics, I think, are enough to drive people not only to buy the iPad, but also to pay the premium for them.

      Thanks again, Matt, and I hope to hear from you again!

  9. Kaitlin Maud

    March 19, 2010
    / Reply

    Has anyone put any thought into having an out-ward facing camera on the iPad? We have been throwing around the idea of purchasing an iPad to use for me to live-tweet from events, etc, rather than a laptop. I can imagine the possibilities it would open up if I were able to lift the iPad up and capture images in the way that the iPhone does.

    • Steven

      March 20, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for reading the blog, and thanks for commenting, Kaitlin.

      I definitely think it would be extremely interesting if the iPad had an outward-facing camera. In particular, the potential for framing the world through overlaid augmented reality holds incredible potential, I think.

      Thanks again for reading the blog, Kaitlin, and I'm looking forward to seeing you at the next Ad Club event!

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  12. Mike Helms

    May 13, 2010
    / Reply

    The complexity of technology has nothing to do with being "checked-out" for a good many of us. Jesus said, "A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" and that certainly holds true for technology. Getting another "device" isn't really high on my list and it has nothing to do with complexity or simplicity of use- I just think it's kind of nice to be free of a lot of it.

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  43. Steven

    February 11, 2010
    / Reply

    This was still a cute message.

    You're absolutely right about YouTube and Picassa. Apologies for the lack of clarity.

  44. Steven

    February 11, 2010
    / Reply

    I tend to think that with Google's creativity-spurring work culture, ability to recruit top engineering talent, and giant pocketbook for acquiring brilliant start-ups, they'll continue to surprise us with good ideas and innovations.

    I can only imagine the vastness of Google's repository of data, and am scared to think of how they will/already do wield it, as you noted. And the notion that that data may be privy to the eyes of cyberterrorists/hackers is even scarier.

    Here's an interesting Times Magazine article about China's hacker culture that really scared me.

    To your point about it being an incredibly vast repository of data, there's another company that's really scary, though less heard of called Quantcast. From what I understand, it collects tons of user data by fielding it in exchange for amazing analytics for web publishers. While they haven't generated any notable revenues yet, their plan, I think, is to ultimately launch one of the most targeted ad networks the world has ever seen.

    Who knows -- maybe there'll be Big Brothers?

  45. Steven

    February 26, 2010
    / Reply

    Thanks for the comment, DIMA.

    I definitely agree with your assessment of both the iPad as a superior reader device and the need for publishers/authors to make PDFs of their books available. I'll be interested to see what interesting user interfaces for viewing PDFs will emerge. For example, issuu.com, displays PDFs as through they're actually magazines, creating the experience of reading the digital form of a magazine.

    But, I imagine that there are going to be a whole new array of novel media formats that take advantage of the iPad's multimedia capabilities and intuitive user-interfaces. I think it's going to be the Wild West out there, in terms of developing the most compelling publishing product for the iPad. And I don't necessarily think it's going to be a big publishing house that does it.

    I, personally, am going to save my money for an iPad. I'm considering getting a first generation one, but I think it's probably wiser to wait until it's cheaper and has better specs (like what happened with the iPod).

  46. Steven

    February 26, 2010
    / Reply

    Thanks, Joe! I appreciate it.

  47. Technology is always changing. while that's a good thing, sometimes it's frustrating. One minute I got this gadget and before I know it, a year flies by and I'm being told by the tech wizards that my gadget is old and I need to update it.

    The only downside to technology is that you always need to buy something new, but NOT all of us can afford to :-/

    I'm keeping an eye out on the iPad... I plan to buy the iPad protection WINGS if I ever buy an iPad :-P

  48. Steven

    March 2, 2010
    / Reply

    DIMA, as a prototypical early adopter, I can totally sympathize with what you're saying. Funnily, I still have two iterations of the iRiver, one of the first good lines of mp3 players, which I purchased before ultimately converting to an iPod.

    I certainly agree that technology is the product of a consumption-driven society, and I also agree that it's a luxury to ponder questions of technological trends, not to mention purchasing technological artifacts.

    And regarding your last comment,... better safe than sorry. :)

  49. Steven

    March 11, 2010
    / Reply

    Good article on thoughts on Google Buzz, three weeks out, by Carmi Levy in BetaNews.

    I tend to agree with most of the criticisms. I don't know if I'm out for the count, but I think it make go the way of Orkut in the US.

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