A few months ago, a journalist fired an irony-laden observation out into the Twittersphere, casually noted one morning whilst sipping his coffee: “There’s a guy in this coffee shop sitting at a table, not on his phone, not on a laptop, just drinking coffee, like a psychopath.”
This freshly-caffeinated dose of wit carries with it a stale aftertaste. Many of us feel at ease with a phone in our hands, where we can roam the familiar plains of our News Feed, hiding anything that annoys us from sight. But what has happened in recent years for hand-free coffee drinking to become so easily diagnosed as raving madness? Surely it’s the reverse situation that’s the real absurdity; a world filled with people focussed more on their screens than on the road they’re crossing?
The abundance of palm-sized technology in our lives continues to face a barrage of criticism, and it’s one that relies upon a tension that’s bristling on either side of our screens; two worlds so opposing in nature it seems one must triumph over the other. Are we really becoming further removed from the physical world around us, ever more isolated from our friends and family, left to wander instead through a boundless, yet solitary, cyber-void?
Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s latest series Removed draws upon this criticism, as he examines the “rapid and unalterable joining of people to devices.” Pickersgill retaliates with a swift amputation, removing phones from clasped grips and leaving families peering out into empty spaces between their hands. With nothing tangible to account for their absorbed fascination, these images seem to side with the material world, urging us to re-examine our relationships with our phones.
But, if we are becoming more removed from the physical world around us, it’s perhaps worth taking a closer, less cynical look at the digital world we’re entering. French photographer Antoine Geiger invites us to do so in SUR-FAKE, a surreal series of images where people’s faces are literally sent spiralling down the rabbit hole into a cyber underworld. Their identity in the physical world is stripped away, sucked into their screen, leaving behind nothing but an unidentifiable blur. While these images certainly question our devotion to devices, they also seem to affirm our existence on the other side, attributing an authority to the experiences and relationships formed within the digital world.
Because what awaits there is far from a distancing, solitary realm. Lifelong, true love matches are formed through dating websites every day. Friends alienated on opposing sides of the planet are suddenly at touching distance. And what would be the point of even checking-in and sharing that selfie if there wasn’t an eagerly awaiting, online community to respond?
Canadian artist Jon Rafman considers this more optimistic side of the digital world in his installation, I am Alone but Not Lonely. Computer screens shimmer brightly, the sugary gloss of their artificial worlds enticing us. Covered in a layer of volcanic ash, the surrounding room is literally muted, blanketed with dust in a symbolic gesture of decay, stagnation and dullness. Such an installation is perhaps more open to the opportunities the digital world has to offer. However Rafman seems forced to neglect the physical world, resigning it to dust, in order to make his point.
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