By David Ryan Polgar
“It would be amazing in a utopian world where technology freed up our time to do other things,” says spoken word poet Marshall Davis Jones. “Unfortunately,” continues Jones, “we were not ready for such a major shift in consciousness.”
Jones intimately knows the benefits and pitfalls of our always-on culture and both the allure and trappings of “being connected.” As a performer with a rapidly growing international profile, he has a strong incentive to spend hours harvesting likes, views, and retweets. But as an artist he has a strong desire to look deeper–a desire to examine how technology is altering how we interact with the world and each other. As he asked at a recent WIRED 2013 Conference (UK) when examining evolving friendships in a social media landscape, “What does it all mean?”
Jones is the creator of the popular and highly influential spoken poem “Touchscreen,” a work that evokes the delicate balance between our expanding impersonal digital connections with our innate desire for authentic human interaction. In a world filled with touchscreens, we still long for the intimacy of human touch. The piece evolved from his frustrations with trying to keep up with an expanding digital world that, instead of freeing up our time, requires countless hours of updates.
“As an artist exposure is important so I had a profile on every social network fighting for supremacy. One day I was completely overwhelmed with how scattered I felt. How lost and futile my efforts were. Thus, I began where it started…that frustration.” Part of Touchscreen goes as such:
my world is so digital
that I have forgotten what that feels like
it used to be hard to connect when friends formed cliques
but it’s even more difficult to connect now that clicks form friends
But who am I to judge?
I face Facebook
more than books face me
I update my status
to prove that I am still breathing
failure to do this daily
means my whole web wide world will forget that I exist
Touchscreen isn’t a manifesto—it’s about our internal conflict. It strikes a nerve with our nuanced feelings towards technology creeping into every facet of our life. We don’t want a world without the Internet or social networks, but we are starting to debate how we want them in our lives. We can love our technology without being a tech fundamentalist.
The poem also explores our existential identity. We are increasingly spending our time curating our online avatars—what effect is this having on the individual behind the persona? You may be noticing a growing trend for online profiles to list a variation of the line, “I am human.” That unusual statement seems to be a reaction towards a world that can seem too artificial for our comfort level. Our digital world makes the verification of authenticity difficult (see Catfishing), so we respond by offering an assurance of legitimacy. It is a modern spin on the classic philosophical pondering: if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, did it make a sound?
Touchscreen was written in 2010, but recently it has taken on a life of its own. Lately it has been embraced by the tech community as a conversation starter and jumping point to explore technology’s role in our lives. Whereas the question used to be, “What CAN technology do for us?,” it has started to evolve towards, “What SHOULD technology do for us?”
“At the time it was written we were all still glamorized with social networking and mobile devices,” says Jones. “When it did strike, the conversation was beyond my piece. It was a discussion that the mainstream began to have. I believe the poem was the nerve struck. The ouch resulting from our new environment and the scream for help. In short, it was an idea whose time had come. Only time will tell what will become of it.”
Jones foremost considers himself a “world-bridger,” an artist able to be provoke meaningful conversations across a broad range of backgrounds. Touchscreen is a rare work that can influence both the consumer and the creator. “The real surprise was when I was asked to perform this piece at a tech conference sponsored by will.i.am and Intel. Not only were the people listening but the minds and hands behind our technology were listening too.”
Similar to the statement “I am human,” it is crucial to note that everything that is artificial is created by someone that is human. The conversation we have today is influencing what we create and allow as a society tomorrow. As Jones puts it, “Everything we create is a manifestation of our consciousness.”
The conversation that Touchscreen brings to the forefront is that every piece of technology provides a tradeoff. We have spent the last few years heralding the wonders of our wizardry, whereas now we are beginning to step back and examine the effects. “Technology has advanced us and has always been at the helm of our growth as a species,” says Jones. “Perhaps though, what concerns me is obsolescence. The obsolescence of our intimacy. The obsolescence of physicality and contact. When we all communicate on screens and those screens outweigh our off screen time we could be compromising a very important part of ourselves…emotional intelligence.”
At the end of the day, Jones is an entrepreneurial artist who embraces the many benefits of smartphones and instant connections while also being mindful of how he is around others. He can create all of his work on his smartphone, but also realize it’s time and place. “When I’m working on a project, I’m in constant contact. But when I am with my daughter, I am with her. When I am with my friends, I am with them. The mobile device has to sit somewhere far away. Or else, psychology kicks in and kicks my ass.”
Marshall Davis Jones, above all, is human.