NPR, SXSW, and the nature of (digital) experience

28Mar11

A few days ago I read Pieter Tijmes’ excellent chapter on Albert Borgmann’s philosophy of technology in the book American Philosophy of Technology: The Empirical Turn, before getting sucked into NPR Music’s equally (although differently) excellent live stream of concerts in their showcase at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference. That juxtoposition got me thinking about the nature of experience in relation to technologies, particularly vis-à-vis Borgmann’s device paradigm and thoughts on the relation between technology and reality.

In his device paradigm Borgmann lays out a compelling framework for thinking about the distinctive characteristics of modern technologies, or devices, and their relation to the good life. A device, he says, is something that separates means from ends, and provides a commodity without requiring any particular engagement on our part. While devices disburden us, they can also draw us away from the kinds of activities that lead to the development of character and engagement with our world. In contrast, things richly interweave means and ends and gather together multiple contexts. They serve a centering and grounding role. They are also bound up with focal practices: things like celebratory meals, practice of a musical instrument, festivals, and runs (not the treadmill variety). For Borgmann, technologies typically fall squarely into the ‘device’ category, and thus constitute a threat to focal practices.

From another angle, Borgmann similarly describes the kind of information that is produced by technologies as being independent of reality, and sometimes seeming to replace it. This is in contrast to ‘natural’ information, which is rooted in the physical world and is significant in its own right. He sets up an opposition between reality and technological, or hyperreal, information. The technological, for him, calls us away from focal engagement with reality.

This is an approach to thinking about technologies that is quite useful and provocative, and that I really like. But its pessimistic assessment of the role technologies play in our lives doesn’t seem entirely warranted. After all, some technologies can actually be thing-like and facilitate focal practices (as Verbeek has pointed out). And on a deeper level, it seems that technology is also increasingly providing ways for us to engage with reality.

This is where my experience of virtually watching SXSW concerts comes in. NPR Music had a high quality live video stream of the concerts, as well as a chat room that enabled conversation among music fans and the NPR Music hosts (and collective complaints when the video feed gave out). At one point I asked a question in the chat room (about how on earth Colin Stetson was able to produce those crazy layers of otherworldly continuous sounds on his bass sax). NPR answered this in the chat room, and then also sent a tweet with the explanation. So I was at times simultaneously watching a video feed through my laptop that was hooked up to my tv and sound system, sitting at my computer and monitoring and contributing to the chat room, and also monitoring Twitter. By some accounts, this would be a very fractured experience.

But it also has some of the same characteristics of Borgmann’s focal practices. It was not the same as actually being there, for sure. But in some ways it was richer because of the other interactions and experiences I was able to have – a better view, the artist interviews after the concerts, the other people commenting in the chat space, etc. I was also able to see several of the All Songs Considered presenters after only hearing them for several years. Usually I hear them report on these kinds of concerts once they come back and wrap them up in podcasts, but in this case I was able to see a video stream of them actually there talking about it as they experienced it live.

Another ‘context’ that was woven into this experience was the political movement to eliminate federal funding for NPR. One performer actually gave a shout out to NPR for its extremely important role in supporting and bringing visibility to independent musicians such as herself, and admonished the crowd to pledge (with their right hands up) to do everything they could to ensure that NPR would remain in existence. Given the legislation passed by the House that day that would discontinue funding for NPR, this is in a way a very pressing ‘local’ issue, in the sense that it affects the everyday lives of everyone both physically at that venue and those of us who watched online. When the performer said this I was also reminded of how much music I have discovered through NPR Music and KCRW Music over the years. (And I actually called my congressional representatives later to ask them to support funding for public radio.)

So in this small experience there were drawn together my history of listening to All Songs Considered over the years; the space of the performance in Austin, Texas; the space of the online chat room in which many strangers were able to in some way share a virtual experience; and the broader space of political debate over funding for NPR. It was an experience that called for me to be present and engaged: with the performances, with the musicians I heard for the first time and began to follow, with other music fans, with NPR Music, and with a political issue that had achieved new relevance. Although it was entertaining in many ways, it was much more than entertainment as commodity.

Some digital technologies can certainly act as devices that call us away from engagement with the real. But, as I’ve been describing here, they can also serve as powerful tools for engaging with our worlds. These are very real worlds that matter in real ways – even if we sometimes need to use mediating technologies to reach them.

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