Personal Touch: Joanne McNeil on Digital Intimacy

By Jon Ippolito

PrintAmong the joys that came with winning the inaugural Thoma Foundation Prize for arts writing last April was discovering the work of my co-winner, Joanne McNeil. Once I got over the shock of being recognized as an Established Writer–“establishment” being a point of view I’m rarely associated with–I took the occasion to read what I could find by the Emerging Writer who shared my award. I like what I found.

Which is good, because I was worried McNeil would fall into one of the two schools of professional tech writing I strive to avoid. First there’s the fanboy. (Yes, digital cheerleaders are usually dudes.) The fanboy fawns breathlessly about the latest Google This or iThat. His only criticisms tend to focus on marketability (“This app enters an already crowded field of calorie counters”) or utilitarian quibbles (“It’s annoying that the Android version doesn’t allow you to post photos”). If the fanboy does raise a deeper cultural issue, it’s most likely confined to a throwaway phrase in the introduction or conclusion (“Some observers worry about the invasion of privacy represented by a startup based on sharing office gossip, but the founders shrug off this concern”).

The second school of tech writing that drives me crazy is the digital pedant, whose academic training has armored her defensive prose, so that it manages to sound portentous without sticking its neck out. (If you’d suffered through a grad degree peppered with critiques like “Why haven’t you cited Theorist X?” and “Your conclusion is naive,” you’d write defensively too.) For the pedant, nothing is ever good or bad; instead everything is problematic, or worse, problematized.

The Thoma award is intended to “promote understanding of digital art,” and it’s easy to see why the jury chose McNeil for this mission. Neither fanboy nor pedant, she puts thoughts into words that are clear yet nuanced, unencumbered by the jargon that weighs down so much scholarship.

Many of her essays pivot on a concrete detail: a broken iPhone screen, a photo of the Eiffel tower, an unlikely 3d puzzle available on a Chinese ecommerce site. These grains of digital texture aren’t haphazard observations, floating by like Facebook posts about a delicious breakfast or pretty sunset. They are tiny gateways to understanding the unseen forces busily automating society, unseen because they are too vast to grasp except on a global scale, or because they are too intimate to experience except subliminally. Forces surveyed in McNeil’s essays include Twitter algorithms that encourage stalking and automated birthday notices that turn anniversaries into occasions for harassment.

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Among my favorite essays is “iPhone Dreams,” precipitated by McNeil’s discovery of a website displaying imagined renderings of what was soon to become the Apple phone. The site compiles unofficial mockups that ordinary artists and designers concocted in October of 2006, shortly after news broke that Apple had struck a deal with a phone company. Unlike the elegant touchscreen slab that Apple would eventually unveil, these clunky, button-cluttered prototypes look more like iPods–or even Princess phones–revealing how our imaginations can be shackled to the past. (The first tractors were equipped with leather reins so farmers could get used to steering them.) Despite its ostensible critique of tech forecasters and Apple groupies, “iPhone Dreams” ends in a confession of infatuation by the author as well. When she eventually gets her hands on the real phone, she brings it to sleep with her, concluding, “I have to remember to put it down.”

McNeil’s confessional tone can be infectious–it gives us readers permission to consider whether we’ve felt parallel digital dreads or desires. But her confessions have a purpose beyond titillation or gossip. She reminds us that the feminist adage “the personal is political” also applies to personal computing, whether in an essay written with Astra Taylor on the industry’s historically inaccurate bias towards the mansplaining “Dads of Tech,” or in a remark on how search engines have changed the meaning of the word “search,” whose original connotation of longing has been demurely expunged to leave only the objective act of research.

The latter insight comes from her catalogue essay for the exhibition “Touch To Feel,” in which McNeil astutely notes how gestural interfaces like tablets and smartphones have similarly consigned touch, our most carnal sense, to the role of a pragmatic intermediary:

The word ‘touch’ is likewise recalibrated, with a focus on the motion of touching rather than sensing the texture of something. The uniformly smooth surface of a ‘touch interface’ has no friction. Touch is never the point of a digital experience, not the way that code is written for us to hear or see. We touch surfaces that do not tug back or prick our fingers. We touch to alter images, to turn the volume down. We touch to engage other senses.

It’s tempting to blame digital tools for stripping away the sensuous meanings of these formerly hot-blooded verbs. Is there a deliberate corporate agenda here, to refocus our erotic attention on nouns that can be bought and sold–like the facts returned by a Google search, or the iPhone we cozy up next to in bed? McNeil doesn’t sermonize on this point; she opens the door and lets us walk through on her own. She has, as we say, a light touch.

We need more writers who can draw our attention to the intimate dimensions of the gadgets that have cozened their way onto our wrists and into our pant pockets. Enough of my mansplaining–go read her yourself.

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