It Is All About Presence

You may have seen a recent commercial that talks about all the wonderful uses of a pencil, as the screen focuses on one while the background changes to thematically coordinate with the narrator’s descriptions. After a few shifts, the background remains still and a hand reaches down to grab the new iPad Air that was hidden behind the very thin pencil, and the commercial explains that Apple hopes you will find just as many uses for their product. The advertiser’s idea is to convince the customer that, as essential as a pencil has been to poems and symphonies and even doing various things in space, so is the iPad Air. The electronic tablet is professed to be the next revolutionary step in writing from the old pencil and paper.

The 21st century has opened with exciting advances in cyber technology that lead us to debate between physical and digital modes of information. If a company keeps all of its files in electronic media, whether hardware or the cloud, they have more space for physical items like office furniture, and can quickly access their information by a few keystrokes. However, should the hardware break down or the ethereal storage get hacked, that information is vulnerable and, even with backup, possibly irretrievable. So, hard copies are usually prudent for the cautious business owner, though even these are subject to physical damage or loss. One cannot afford to fully trust one way or the other, and so must maximize the benefits of both.

The question becomes more pointed if no significant resources are at stake. When it comes to books, we can carry an e-reader that is capable of providing a small library in the same space that one book would normally occupy. Since producing paper gives people concern for the shrinking global tree population, it would seem prudent to just skip the hassle of carrying bound volumes. Even the book lover’s complaint that e-readers ‘just aren’t the same’ is ringing less true year by year, as technology provides page turning, bookmarks, and generally paper-like screens. As online shopping led to Borders going out of business, so the digital format could replace the last few centuries’ tome, like a new Gutenberg press.

Yet even so, there is a strong reluctance for many to make that final jump— dare I say a faith that things like physical books still offer us something that cannot be replaced. What we lose in technology is the presence of that material we interact with, since cyberspace occupies no real space, and whether connecting with people or writing, they are presented to us via electric signals that are translated into text and picture, not as a corpus or body. The physical element is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and that’s fine where efficiency is necessary. Technology can give access to those materials when a physical interaction is not possible.

The problem is Americans have the innate assumption that perfect efficiency will make things easier and life better, so we hardly ever stop increasing speed at the expense of those precious bodily experiences. A digital library cannot be strolled, and no e-reader lets the pages flip past your fingers or gives you the smell of ink and old paper. If electronic stimuli can ever provide those experiences, the point will not be that it feels real, but if it is real. The point is we might be tempted to claim that technology is the peak of communication, as if it can do away with all the inefficiencies and unwanted side effects from tangible thought and corporeal contact.  

The heart of it all is that humans are not complicated data processors, but physical and spiritual beings. Whether in business or leisure, it is harmful for a society to consider ease and productivity as their highest goal, as the primary means of achieving the elusive pursuit of happiness. We need those messy, untimely moments where life is best lived, as well as finding methods to get more things done more quickly. We still need to be able to touch people, and to have their words actually inscribed and close, not just quickly projected and quickly removed. There is more to life than getting the most out of a service, or being preeminent at providing one. When the holidays are about looking for the best stuff at the best price, rather than finding the gifts that bring true joy to our loved ones, including spending time with them (if possible), then they won’t be so holly or jolly.

To be fair, companies are aware of this presence factor and often incorporate into their commercials the notion that their products liberate the customer to take care of those moments, unencumbered by inferior, less handy products. The struggle lies not in those who take stock of what people are like and then advertise accordingly; rather, it lies with the individual from whom commercialism ultimately flows. Having an iPad is great, so long as it doesn’t stand in for love of our neighbor. Focusing on the physical beings around us, not the digital or even physical benefits we expect from the gifting season, is to be more human and, we shall find, gives us actual joy. In the same tradition where God came down to be present with mankind on Christmas morn, we should take time to put aside the fleeting intangibles in favor of those presently with us, who make life complicated and material.

Image via Flickr.