Circle of Presence

Altered photograph of Murray Kempton, via

On a recent Sunday, I opened up my Twitter feed to find Sherry Turkle getting pummeled for an opinion piece in the  New York Times,The Flight From Conversation.” Rarely has my feed spoken with such strident uniformity. Turkle had clearly struck a nerve. Critics noted that Turkle presented a false dichotomy; conversations can still happen even in a world that includes social media and text messaging. This is true in principle, of course. And, in principle, I suspect Turkle would agree. But I’m not sure this is really the best way of approaching these sorts of concerns.

Perhaps it would be better to reframe the issue in terms of presence. Turkle’s concerns seem strongest when they deal with the manner in which technology impinges on face-to-face communication. And on this point many of her critics agreed with her concerns even while they disagreed with the way they were packaged. After all, much to her critics' bemusement, the threaded comments seemed mostly to validate Turkle’s point of view.

It is easy to see why. Most of us have been annoyed by someone who was unable to give another human being their undivided attention for more than seconds at a time. And perhaps more significantly, most of us have felt the pull to do the same: We have struggled to keep our attention focused on the person talking to us as we know we ought to because some shred of our humanity remains intact. We know very well that the person in front of us is more significant in the moment than the text that just made our phone vibrate in our pocket. We have been on both ends of the kind of distractedness that the mere presence of a smartphone can occasion, and we are alive enough to be troubled by it. We begin to feel the force of Simone Weil’s judgment: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

So Turkle’s piece, and others like it, resonate despite the theoretical shortcomings that make some scholars cringe. What difference does it make that some study showed that a statistically significant portion of the population reports feeling less lonely when using social media if I can’t get the person standing two feet away from me to treat me with the barest level of decency?

The recurring question remains, however, “Are smartphones at fault?” Is Google making us stupid? Is Facebook making us lonely? But that’s not the best way of stating the question. Rather than begin with a loaded question, perhaps it’s better to try to clarify the situation. What is happening when cell phones become part of an environment that also consists of two people in conversation?

Of the many possible approaches to this question, I want to take up philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the “intentional arc." Merleau-Ponty writes:

The life of consciousness – cognitive life, the life of desire or perceptual life – is subtended by an "intentional arc" which projects round about us our past, our future, [and] our human setting.

Hubert Dreyfus, whose work builds on Merleau-Ponty’s, adds this explanatory note:

It is crucial that the agent does not merely receive input passively and then process it. Rather, the agent is already set to respond to the solicitations of things. The agent sees things from some perspective and sees them as affording certain actions. What the affordances are depends on past experience with that sort of thing in that sort of situation.

The “intentional arc” describes the manner in which our experience and perception is shaped by what we intend. Intending here means something more than what we mean when we say “I intended to get up early” or “I intend to go to the store later.” Intention in this sense refers in large measure to a mostly nonconscious work of perceiving the world that is shaped by what we are doing or aim to do. Our perception, in other words, is always already interpreting reality rather than simply registering it as a pure fact or objective reality.

This work of perception-as-interpretation builds up over time as an assortment of “I cans” that are carried or remembered by our bodies. This assortment becomes part of the background, or pre-understanding, that we bring to bear on new situations. And this is how our intentional arc “projects round about us our past, our future.”

The insertion of a tool like a cell phone into our experience reconfigures the “intentional arc.” The phenomenon is neatly captured by the expression, “To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” How we perceive our environment is shaped by the mere presence of a tool in hand. And this effect is registered even before the tool is used.

Merleau-Ponty might analyze the situation as follows: The feel of a hammer in hand, especially given prior use of a hammer, transforms how the environment presents itself to us. Aspects of the environment that would not have presented themselves as things-to-be-struck now do. Our interpretive perception interprets differently. Our seeing-as is altered. New possibilities suggest themselves. The affordances presented to us by our environment are reordered.

Try this at home: go pick up a hammer or, for that matter, any object you can hold in hand that is weighted on one end. See what you feel. Hold it and look around you and pay really close attention to the way your perceive these objects. Actually, on second thought, don’t try this at home.

Another example, perhaps less fraught with potential danger, is offered by the camera. With camera in hand, our environment presents itself differently; we see differently. In this sense, the tool does have a certain causal force, it causes the environment to present itself differently to the user. It may not cause action, but it invites it. It causes the environment to hail the user in a new way.

This helps illuminate how smartphones reconfigure face-to-face interaction: they alter the intentional arc that suspends the act of conversation and the sense of presence it promises participants. Conversation involves the whole body in an act of holistic communication. Merleau-Ponty spoke of our body’s natural tendency to seek an “optimal grip” on our environment. In face-to-face conversation, our bodies seek an optimal grip as well. While our conscious attention is focused on words and their meaning, our fuller perceptive capabilities are engaged in reading the whole environment. In conversation, then, each person becomes a part of a field of communication that is not limited to verbal expression.

To put it another way, our intentional arc includes acts of interpretative perception of the other’s body as well as words. When we perceive eyes and hands, facial gestures and posture, we perceive these not merely as eyes, hands, and so on but as eyes that signify, hands that mean. We are attuned to much more than the words a person offers to us, and much of that communication occurs at a nonconscious level. Perceiving these dynamics becomes a part of our conversational pre-understanding.

But this dynamic that enriches and shapes face-to-face communication depends on each person offering themselves up to read in certain ways. Our attention intends the other’s body as a nexus of communication, but when the other’s body is not engaged in the act of conversation, dissonance results and presence is broken. Presence is not a unidirectional phenomenon involving the intentionality of each partner individually. Presence is not something one person achieves. Rather, presence emerges from the manner in which the act of conversation coupled the intentionality of each individual. To borrow Merleau-Ponty’s lingo (and give it my own somewhat sappy twist), two intentional arcs come together to form a circle of presence.

When the smartphone enters into the dynamic, it disrupts the body’s communicative patterns. Gestures, eye contact, posture, facial expression — all of it is altered. Our body no longer  means in the way it is used to being perceived. It becomes impossible to achieve an optimal grip on the embodied interaction. And because our bodies give and receive this sort of communication tacitly and often in remarkably subtle ways in the act of conversation, we may not be conscious of this dissonance. We may only register a certain feeling of being out of sync. Presence fails to emerge and conversation of the sort that Turkle champions — indeed, of the sort we all acknowledge as one of the great consolations offered to us in this world — becomes more difficult to achieve.