Electronics are apparently primarily info-centric

When we were discussing precisely how to spend our time observing people interacting with technology Neo suggested, and I quickly agreed, that walking up Broadway from ITP to Times Square would likely be pretty interesting. So that’s just what we did. We had planned to hit the road by about 15:00 on Sunday and catch the R train back to the program around 15:50 or so. We both ran a bit late, so we didn’t actually startwalking until just before 16:00.

The assignment was one that I had thought would be interesting when it was assigned. I like watching people, after all. But I was surprised by just how enlightening the whole thing was in some ways.

Earbuds, everyone has them so you don't notice that anyone does

Earbuds, everyone has them so you don't notice that anyone does

1. Earbuds are so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Both Neo and I had digital cameras and we sort of aimed to get shots of everyone using electronic devices as we walked. We realized that this would be difficult, but initially I had thought it would be due to simple volume. I was surprised to find out differently. See, the real difficulty came from the fact that I, personally, have reached a point where I simply don’t notice earbuds. This isn’t because they’re unobtrusive. After all, so many of them are that high-contrast white. No, what has happened is that so many people wear the tings that I’ve stopped seeing them. I find this revelation to be a fascinating sort of commentary on the way ubiquity becomes invisible as well as a sort of insight into my own psyche.

Notice that there are no watches here

Notice that there are no watches here

2. Watches: generational gap. Early in our walk Neo and I talked about how people didn’t seem to be wearing wrist watches. This makes sense since people are so likely to be carrying an important device that incidentally tells time (like a cell phone) that there’s no need for a dedicated time-telling device. There were two major exceptions to this trend toward fewer watches: the elderly, and the professionals. The elderly, I suspect, have wrist watch use so deeply ingrained in their habits that continued use is almost inevitable. It’s simply another instance of a generational/technological gap. The pprofessionals were something else altogether. It was quite fascinating to observe all their very nice watches. Watches that were really more fashion accessory than time-telling tool. This suspicion seemed to be pretty well confirmed by the observation of a businessman with a rather nice watch who pulled out his cell phone to check the time.

Visual information broadcast

Visual information broadcast

3. Electronics as inforation sources. By far the dominant use of electronic devices of all sorts observed were intended to transfer information, generally to the user. Cell phones and MP3 players are obviously informational devices, but it turns out that many other devices are too. Traffic lights, both vehicle and pedestrian, are, in an important sense, purely informational. They don’t actually control the flow of traffic, however we may say it. After all, they’re simply colored lights. What they do is signal to everyone in visual range precisely what rules people are expected to follow in an area. Other overtly information-conveying devices include the digital readouts on buses declaring their routes and the various electronic advertisement signs.

Private aural space

Private aural space

Of special interest is the division of public and private information devices. The majority of private devices are primarily aural: MP3 players, cell phones, and the like. While the majority of public devices are vsual: signs, signal lights. The aural component is more intimate and intrusive while being more easily distorted by distance and the visual component is less intrusive while being less distorted by distance so this makes sense. That said, I feel that there’s some interesting things to play with in this sort of aural/visual-private/public divide.

Money is an oft-overlooked form of information technology

Money is an oft-overlooked form of information technology

An interesting revelation that this line of thinking led to is that the ATM is also primarily a sort of information dispensing machine. Beyond the obvious functions involving relaying your bank balance to you, cash itself is really an information carrier rather than a good. A highly specialized inforation carrier, to be sure, but still just encoded knowledge.

An island of electronic silence

An island of electronic silence

4. The subway is a surprising zone of electronic silence. Not that I hadn’t noticed this before, but I had never given it much thought: a lot of the quiet that one finds on the subway is due to the fact that there is no cell reception down there. In any similarly crowded public space with cell reception you are virtually guaranteed to be unwilling participant to at least half a dozen conversations taking place on cell phones. There are numerous people on the subway with books, newspapers, and magazines. That much physically printed material is rare these days outside of a bookstore. After all, your average coffee shop, once a bastion of reading the printed word, contains more glowing-screened laptops than books these days.

Overall the observation exercise was an interesting one. Recogizing the dominance of electronic devices used for information has gotten me thinking quite a bit about what other possible uses we might be missing out on. Clearly we know that these things are good wiith data, but surely there’s more to them than that.

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