Tag Archives: phenomenology

Multi-tasking, phones & phenomenology

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I never expected to see four fixations of mine (multi-tasking, the dangers of driving while phoning, phenomenology, and dance) come together in a single scholarly article, but today’s the day.

The latest issue of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences is devoted to dance and cognitive science (see here), and one of the articles, by Robert Rosenberger, “Embodied technology and the dangers of using the phone while driving” is an attempt to unravel from a phenomenological perspective just what it is that is distracting about mobile phone use while driving, particularly since it seems that a lot of the evidence suggests that hands-free phones causes a similar drop in driving performance.

It links very nicely with the book I’m reading The Audible Past, where the author Jonathan Sterne talks about the concept of a private aural space that is created by audio technology.  I see a connection between this and what Rosenberger calls  ‘field composition’ – the way that a user’s field of awareness becomes ‘composed’ by a mediating technology (such as a phone, or a car). What Rosenberger is saying is that a phone and phoning creates a particular field of awareness that has a different phenomenological character to that of a car and driving.  Although that sounds intuitively correct, the distinction between this and a thin account of ‘distraction’ or ‘multitasking’ or ‘cognitive load’ is important if we are to find out what it is that is distracting, and whether a hands-free device is going to make any difference.

I think if Rosenberger lived in Wandsworth, he’d see a whole other level of distraction, where people on the school run use ‘hands-free’, but look down at the phone (i.e. not at the road) while they’re talking, but that’s another subject.

In praise of (occasional) marginalia

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Clifton (1983, p.75)

As you leave the Institute of Education library, there’s a montage of photographs showing the awful things that people have done to books, like water damage and coffee stains, highlighting and tearing, as a reminder to treat their books nicely.  Writing in books, particularly library books, is a real annoyance. But occasionally, you come across a bit of marginalia that is so enlightening, and as in the case I’m about to relate, so charming, you have to forgive the reader for taking their pencil to paper. (But don’t do this at home, and particularly not with an IoE book).

The book in question is Thomas Clifton’s Music as heard: A study in applied phenomenology (1983). It’s very difficult to get hold of, and I’m so glad that Senate House library had one (as I’ve remarked before). I’m thoroughly enjoying it because Clifton gets at a point which is very relevant for my research:  Music analysis that explains how a piece of music was constructed says very little about the way that you actually experience music.  But on page 75, there’s a bit about the relationship between feeling and reflection where he seems to slip into a very dodgy value judgement about rock concerts.  It’s at this point that a previous reader, who has commented in pencil several times in the margins with  very small, neat handwriting, has underlined Clifton’s  sentence (“We have encountered  the resultant spectacle at rock concerts, where the music is not at all the main attraction but a side show”) and then written in the margin:

“How do you know?! One suspects Clifton is contradicting his own phenomenological precepts here by making a judgement independent of experience!”

And underneath, another reader has written in a larger, more exuberant hand

“Yes, I agree!”

Now I know I shouldn’t be advocating writing in library books, but this bit of marginalia is a really useful commentary on Clifton’s book, and a heartwarming proof that two previous readers had given close attention not just to the text, but to the marginalia as well.

For the record,  I agree! too: I think  Clifton is wrong here, too, because everything he says about rock concerts could be said of classical concerts (that we may ‘run the risk of submerging into our own feelings and confusing the expression in the music with the spontaneity of our own responses’).  It seems strange for a phenomenologist to ascribe a mode of listening to an event or a musical genre rather than to individuals attending the event and experiencing the music, but if I’m not wrong, I think that betrays a prejudice against rock music that made him drop his phenomenological guard. All of which I might not have given so much attention to if two people hadn’t defaced the book.

There are plenty of solutions to this out there – annotatable pdfs, or tagging and note-making in Zotero groups for example. But there’s something about holding and reading a book that someone else has held, transported back and forth to a library, and inscribed literally with the mark of their hand, that is  phenomenologically different to the experience of tagging an electronic file, and that’s yet another reason why physical books will always win out for me over the electronic.