It’s early 2000s Dublin and the author is on a night out with his fellow students and a tutor. The group are in mid toast when feeling the phone vibrating in his pocket he furtively replies under the table drawing a colourful scolding from the tutor. Looking back the author sees the beginnings of our current predicament – one in which we are “shimmering between two places” – at once physically located while our attention is channeled elsewhere.
The Fourth Dimension
A supernatural plot device by used by 19th century authors like HG Wells and Joseph Conrad (as well as Edwin A. Abbott’s experimental novel Flatland) the Fourth Dimension is employed by Laurence Scott in ‘The Four-Dimensional Human’ to describe that sense of presence in more than one place.
While this isn’t an original thesis (and if you’re seeking a more soberingly alarmist one you may consider Dr Mary Aiken’s ‘The Cyber Effect’) the telling of it – frequently meandering, often times personal and intellectually promiscuous – makes it a satisfying one. While Scott, a lecturer in English and creative writing, alludes as often to Mrs Dalloway he does to Seinfeld to examine how, mediated by technology, our relationships with each other and ourselves have changed.
The best versions of ourselves
The book examines many facets of digital life – the very McLuhanite notion of extensibility of our individual experience of the world (“We have an ‘everywhereness’ to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation”) and how the private transforms into the public through performance (“generally it has become the standard to upload the single most broadly pleasing version of ourselves”) and voyeurism.
It’s discussing the latter that Duchamp’s final work Étant donnés is invoked as the author argues that it “predicted the obverse vision of our connected digital future”. The piece (which the artist worked on throughout the second half of his 40 year reclusion when he swapped art for chess) is comprised of a medieval door with peep holes through which the viewer must self-consciously peer through in order to catch sight of what appears to be a naked woman “splayed among coarse, dry grasses”. In the context of the museum the viewer then is “the lone, spying figure whose own watching feels watched”. There’s something unsettlingly familiar about this image transposed onto our digital present.
Disappearing in full view
Familiar too is his account of an exchange between a mother and her adolescent son pointing to that often liminal state our phones can bestow. In the midst of an argument they take their seats on the Tube while the boy sullenly spurns his mother’s attempts at resolution.
“[She] begins to to flick pointedly through the Metro, her eyes moving quickly over sections on each page beneath arched, overacting eyebrows. He stares desolately at his own copy. I can hear the white noise inside both of their heads as they continue this pretence at reading. Despite her bluff, the mother soon abandons the headlines and brings out her smartphone. She starts tapping at it thoughtfully while the son remains very still and holds his downward stare, waiting. It’s not long before unselfconscious quivers of concentration appear at the edges of her mouth. Now and then her eyebrows tremor from true absorption and focus, and a new sense of peace washes over the scene. The son tugs his jeans at the knee and adjusts his weight; he begins to turn the pages of his newspaper naturally. I wonder where this sudden ease has come from, and then I realise that it is because his mother has gone.“