A Sense of Body

3 Feb

A colleague emails me and my colleagues at 12pm; she will do the same two hours later and then again at 6 am. Why? Is she doing this to imply she is on a night shift? This seems unlikely; our workplace is a research lab, not a manufacturing plant. Our hours tend to be civilised. Nevertheless she is doing so because she has an agenda that is related to hours of work. She wants to give the impression that she works so hard that in effect she works all the time. Being at work, sitting at her desk in her office, her bodily presence at work, won’t convey that impression of course: none of her colleagues would notice. After all, during the times she emails, they will be at home, probably in bed, tucked up nice and warm. She is using one of the properties of email to create this sense of her body, of her body being somehow present in the domain of labour, the ‘office’, all the time, not just at night. She is doing this in a particular way, one might say. But one might also say it is an odd way, odd at least in the sense that it is only something that has been possible recently. To put it in digital argot, she is using electronic messaging to create a sense of her ‘presence’ when the presence is not of her real body, its fleshiness as it were (and all that implies about the mixed things that people are: brains and bones, minds and hearts, rational creatures yet emotional too, and so on). Her presence is her – whatever that might be if not flesh and blood.

Technology is allowing what I will call a shift in what ‘being somewhere’ means, where that assumes physical presence in that place or location to one where that means digital presence – which consists of an absent bodilyness. With one, she disappears when her body goes; with the other, the one she turns to, she is always ‘there’, wherever there is and despite where her body might be.

She manages this remarkable metaphysics through digital actions.

An obvious way of developing on this point, on this metaphysics, would be to say that this is a manifestation of modern ways of working, where distance has been dissolved by technology. In this view, one can work anywhere, as long as one has the Internet. One can work anytime too, indeed all the time if one so wishes. One is merely a point in a system of connections. Yet this allows us to play with the metaphysics of space, the body and all that means: presence/absence, distance/nearness.

But that is not the shift I am wanting to think about. I want to think about the relationship between the things people do, their body as a thing related to this, and the connection between this and what computers let that thing, them, their body do or be understood as. I want to suggest that there are a number of possible shifts that can be imagined in relation to this duality: a duality about the self, the body, on the one hand, and how this is mediated by digital technologies on the other. There is an intertwining of the two, the body/self and the computer, I want to suggest, that can lead us in to strange places where what we understand is the ‘who’ or the ‘what’ (a particular body say) behind the digital act shifts and alters. It alters not simply as we make new constructions of ourselves, of our bodies, but also through changes brought about in computers too: what the body is is sometimes affected by technology: what computers afford lead us to see different things about what bodies afford too.

These shifts are not all analogies of this first example, the one to do with presence/absence but are rather better thought of as diverse and subtle; altering some aspects of what is represented as bodily and what is possible in terms of computing viz-a- viz that sense of body.

Consider the following shift: with digital technology my colleague is no longer merely the recipient of information. The fact that she sends email attests to something else: it notifies us of the fact that she is the producer of information and not solely (or even) a consumer of it. This shift is often talked about (especially as regards organisations) because it is said to be virtuous: making organisations better than in the past. It turns around the idea that, with communications technology, with the Internet as a kind of synonym for all kinds of contemporary ways of communicating, the relationship between information and the human body is reversed in organisational contexts. Before, organisations (somehow) produced content and this was consumed by the organisation’s staff, by its bodies, as it were. Now, with digital connectivity, with the Internet inside and between organisations, people, embodied members of the organisation, come to produce it. The contrast is one between information produced through the limiting, unidirectional prism of organisational hierarchy and constraint on the one hand, and, on the other, a turn to the expressive freedom of individuals, real bodies speaking thing ‘from the heart’ rather than from the ‘rule book’. A further contrast used to illuminate this distinction is the one between ‘Corpspeak’ and ‘ blogging’ .

Lots of people have remarked on this change; a revolution is occurring in organisational life as well as in the public polity, some would have us believe (see for example, Hewitt’s 2005 book, Blog: Understanding the Information that is Changing your World; also Scoble & Isreal’s Naked Conversations of 2006). Never mind that one cannot quite understand how in the past organisations produced information if not through the embodied actions of staff – this is the contrast made: between a dehumanised world of organisational information and one made creative by the presence of real active bodies (see for example, the now somewhat old book, A Thousand Tribes, by Lissak & Bailey, 2002).

It maybe. Maybe we have become more ‘bodied’; but how odd that it would be digital technology that lets us……….

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