The iPhone comes to Vermont tomorrow: Who will go out and get one?

I’m thinking about braving the crowds (and cold) tomorrow and lining up for an iPhone at one of five stores that will have them available in the state. The truly-with-it (and wealthy) figured out a long time ago that if they really wanted one, they could, with a New York phone exchange. (And the bills accompanying that choice.) Now that it will be possible to have a Vermont number, I wonder who will be in those lines tomorrow. Who will (have the luxury to) think of such a purchase.

Who might be there (and even more, who surely will not) interests me because of intersections between my reading and my work in small rural communities, towns with sketchy cell phone coverage, iffy internet access and uneven (unequal) access to computers.

In The Power of Place, Harm de Blij speaks to this reality in his opening chapter, “Globals, Locals, and Mobals,” a sharp and simple reminder of how deeply tied (chained? rooted?) much of the world is to locality. “Earth may be a planet of shrinking functional distance, ” he writes, “but it remains a world of staggering situational difference. From the uneven distribution of natural resources to the unequal availability of opportunity, place remains a powerful arbitrator….Of the seven billion current passengers on Cruiseship Earth, the overwhelming majority (the myth of mass migration notwithstanding) will die very near the cabin in which they were born.” (p.3) While he is not writing of rural communities in North America specifically here, it is helpful to remember the pull, the demands, the realities, the power of place. Even when we have iPhones. At least around here. Climate, landscape, size and spread of community, proximity to a highway or to a town of some size have a profound impact–still–on the people who live here. iPhones (or any of the competition) are irrelevant to so many who live here although cellphones can be lifelines in remote places.

past limbo

My work table is strewn with books, my desktop cluttered with articles and blogposts, images and metaphors in the hopes that they will help me to think through the conundrum of helping small rural communities explore social media practices. It is no simple matter. Platitudes and generalizations don’t work to describe the complexities of rural life. This is slippery territory, murky, confusing, mysterious. I have to stop myself every few days to ask, “And why do I think this is a good idea, this new-old open community learning space, a third place fluid computer center/ office/lab/studio/collaboratory/exhibition/meeting space for communities that perhaps have spotty high-speed internet, few public computers, and some (sometimes more than some) suspicion that going online means losing oneself, or worse, one’s kids?” Several upcoming talks and conference presentations will tease out some of these idea, including one with Nancy White and Laura Blankenship at Northern Voice .

Doing the Limbo. Out on a limb-o. Stuck in limbo.

through the window, first light

The iPhone has me thinking about gaps, the betweens created by lack of broadband and computer access as well as cellphone coverage, by a lack of extended conversation about creative and/or social media practices, and a confusion over what we mean by openness on the Web. I’m worried about the widening gaps between locals, mobals and globals. I think about what Clay Shirky has observed about the way people are wrapping themselves in bubbles of perceived privacy as they talk loudly on their cellphones, or text while engaging in conversation with someone sitting right there in front of them. I’m concerned about unfounded fear and anxiety, how they creep about and lead to misinformation and disaster (hey, look at our government’s actions over the last eight years), how they influence online behaviors and attitudes about online behaviors. Sometimes there’s not enough fear about things that ARE threats. But in a country where it is so difficult to talk openly about the scary things and places and practices, we often don’t even “see” racism, sexism, domestic and sexual abuse, social injustice when they’re right in front of us. (Another must-read book on my table is one Joe Lambert suggested: Sundown Towns by James Loewen ). I worry about how “the systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.” (Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, p.250)


And there’s the visual, the digital image. The iPhone, having as much of a visual impact as an audio one, with its big screen and camera, makes me think about the impact of images in small rural communities. Digital photos have exploded onto the Web (see Susan Sontag’s NYT piece “Regarding the Torture of Others” and BagNewsNotes‘ reading of visual media day in and day out, Pedro Meyer’s writing on Zone Zero, among many others) and so we need to think about our use of and response to digital images, both professional and vernacular. About cameraphones. Images on the Web. How we circulate images, how we communicate with them–and what all this openness really means. Blogposts such as Alec Couros’ Flickr Perversion, and the conversation it has sparked in the comments and blogs, and articles linking unsafe visual social media practices to crime, such as this one in Vermont’s statewide newspaper, show us how urgent it is to talk about our practices as well as to go out there and practice.

Having a place in town to learn, to talk, to mess around with digital media could lead to active, informed participation. I think it could also lead to stronger bonds within the town between generations, groups, traditional divides. I’m seeing it happen already. People want to share stories, ideas, connect over the things that matter to them. They’re nervous about it–wonder if it’s okay to do online. And there’s the problem of time. We want our Web stories to look good and be easy to make. We often want them to be like StoryCorps stories or what Sarah Kramer, friend and board member, is working on with “One in Eight Million,” a new web experience via the New York Times, elegant stories of the people of New York. These are simple, short. Folksy yet polished. These stories seem easy to make: just push RECORD and the story spills out. Click STOP and there it is. Start a blog and people will listen. Open a wiki and people will contribute. Ha. How realistic is it for people to learn to edit, to share, to contribute, to tend, to share feeds and participate online when we can’t find the time to attend town meetings or to volunteer? We’re a now culture. We have no time.

And then there are those, quite a few of those in rural communities, who think we should run away from technology, toss the iPhone while we’re at it. Return to some “better way.”

I am pulled to balance on this score by David Gessner, who writes:
“What I want to leave behind is false romanticism. What I want to carry into the fight is the original romantic urge for the specific, the local, the real. What I want to leave behind is quoting Thoreau; what I want instead is to follow more deeply the complex spirit of the man. What I want to leave behind are pages of facts. What I want to carry forward are facts marshaled for purpose, facts enlivened because they follow an idea. What I want to leave behind is the sanctimony of quietude and order and “being in the present.” What I want to embrace is loud and wild disorder, growing this way and that, lush and overdone. What I want to leave behind is the virtuous and the good, and move toward the inspiring and great. And while we’re at it I want to leave behind anything false, false to me that is, false to what I feel is my experience on this earth. What I want instead is to wade through the mess of life without ever reaching for a life ring called The Answer.”

Yes. And so, it’s not enough for us to talk here on blogs. We’ve also got to go into our towns and engage our neighbors in these essential, messy conversations of our time. To think about place but not think only of place–if we’re fortunate enough. I want to move toward “the inspiring and great.” Fearlessly but not stupidly, blindly. So I’m going to get an iPhone, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. I want to participate actively in the remarkable creative, connective world of the Web, but balance what I do there with actions in town, in person. So, if I talk online about Flickr and fear, then I’ll talk about it in town as well. If I make a digital story, I’ll show it to people where I live as well as to the whole World Wide Web. And I’ll pull out my iPhone to do it. And then we can talk about that, too.


8 Responses

  1. Digital is no longer the “under dog” of the marketing world, campaigns and strategies are now built around digital media with digital media becoming the centre piece of any activity,
    so a digital agency really needs to work at that strategic level with their clients.

  2. I admit it. I took a long lunch break and waited in line on Dorset Street to get one. I needed some new cell phones for my family and I used the opportunity to buy myself a new toy. The monthly fees are significant for 3 phones, and only one is an iPhone, but I took the plunge.

  3. i have read your posts for a while and also musing on th iphone since my techie husband and 18-yr old child bought me one as a birthday present … it was not such an expense as H works at a local university and got big discounts.. First I was mad … maybe mean; i suspected my phone was on the way out and predicetd to a friend wees before that i was getting an iphone for my birthday … and when H and C gave me the iphone i called the friend, said “tell him (the H) what I told you a few weeks ago,” and i didn;t mean to be mean but in retropsect it wsa mean … but there was nothing wrong with my phone. The iphone is a toy that makes calls for me, but i can see that it is also the front of a movement that will put computer access, internet connectivity, information and communication in the reach of many more people all over the world. The battery is short-lived, connectivity can be spotty, but these and other problems will be fixed and in the not-so-distant future many more people will have the ability to carry around their little computer in their bag or pocket, and will have all the resources and communication abilities that entails. Is that good? I don’t really know — it could be used for good or it could be used for bad, just like steel and germs. But there’s no turning back and the challenge as i see it is to make available the opportunities presented by the technology to those who have need or want of it, and time will tell. But I do wonder what Marshall McLuhan (sp?) would say about all of this …

  4. iPhone: considering it, but also Android. Neither will work on my land.

    Images: I’ve been brooding on last year’s Steve Jobs comment about nobody reading anymore, and the NEA study, and this Kindle’s design.

    Rural life: the Ripton blog chugs along.

  5. I’m leaning towards the Palm, now.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all. I did it, I got the iPhone and here I go into the world of mobile devices–I’m interested to see if I spend more time plugged in or less as a result. I’m interested to see if I am awkward with it in town–will it feel showy in the feedstore, the corner grocery, the natural foods co-op? Will it make a difference to my life on the road–and I will be on the road a good deal these next few months?

  7. Hi Barbara-

    I was pointed your direction from Bob Cole; we both work here at MIIS.
    First off, your writing here is beautiful and insightful! I’ve truly enjoyed reading your posts.
    I have to say that I was once suspect of technology, particularly after I came back from Peace Corps and felt an intense disdain for something I felt was destroyng the human connections between people.
    Today, I am in love with my iPhone and my mac and my flip camera…
    I think the thing we have to understand is that we cannot resist these changes as they will only get more ingrained. The challenge is learning how to use these technologies to enhance human connections.
    And, I think we are already seeing it. For better and for worse, the iPhone/Flip Camera/Youtube Revolution is the great democratizer…
    Thanks for this great blog-I’ve put you on my blogroll to keep up with!

  8. Barbara-

    It was so wonderful to stumble upon your blog! Living in the rural Northeast Kingdom, I often feel intellectually disconnected. I look forward to reading your blog in the future and following what you are doing with education. I am currently getting my masters in education while I work full-time and I have some major philosophical issues with what I witness in the public and hybrid high schools in which I work. Although I don’t expect anyone to point out the same problems that I do, I haven’t found anyone that even asks the questions or is interested in the discussion.

    On another note, I have an iPhone but I try not to take it out when I’m in the grocery store at home. I am already odd in the Northeast Kingdom, since I drive a car which runs well, own a home at 25, and have no children, so I try not to stick out any worse than I already do.
    Barbara, thank you for this blog. I look forward to following it…

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