Stationary and Solitary


Mobile and Social. Mobile and Social. For many years now, those have been the two polestars of personal computing, the twin icons that software, hardware, and web designers worship through their work. So strong has been their pull that I sense they’ve come to influence, if not limit, our view of the possibilities of human experience.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if software and hardware designers expanded their set of goals to encompass more fully the possibilities of human experience? If Stationary and Solitary were your polestars, rather than Mobile and Social, what kind of apps and devices and sites would you build?

11 thoughts on “Stationary and Solitary

  1. L

    If Stationary and Solitary were your polestars, rather than Mobile and Social, what kind of apps and devices and sites would you build?

    I think you just described WordStar and pretty much any other application prior to the 1990s.

  2. Seth

    “Stationary and Solitary” is “Video”. As in, YouTube, Netflix, etc.

    Some of the “Quantified Self” stuff arguably fits too.

  3. Deborah

    The first thing I thought of was a really functional speech to text device. If one were interested in ‘thinking aloud’ while in this solitary mode, later on, you could read your musings or print them out, and revisit them with the other parts of your brain that analyze ideas differently when read from a page. (Something you have talked about.)

    The second thing that came to mind would be a… (accessible to the novice) world building program. How often have we ‘built’ imaginary houses or castles in our minds? I know there are programs like Minecraft that approach this… but I’m talking about something much richer and more lifelike.

    How about a puzzle game that learns from your responses and creates puzzles that are unique to your way of solving things, continuing to hone your cognitive prowess? BTW… (Has anyone ever played Pandora’s Box?) Wow.

    I have always enjoyed desktop publishing. I personally would love to have software that was very powerful, but not so clunky and restrictive, OR the impossible to use versions that have so many boxes to tick and a learning curve that gets so steep that it falls back on itself! More intuitive, less commercially oriented.

    I like to knit. I also like to read. It’s hard to do those two things at once. Now I know there are books on tape. Totally get that. But what if there was a device that could read your own library to you? I don’t want to buy my library over again in a different format. So… text to speech that doesn’t sound like Hal. That would be nice.

    Hey! How about conversations with our dearly departed sages? What if you posed a question to say… Benjamin Franklin? And the software scanned his collected works and if he had anything to say to that point, would deliver it to you? (Without the laborious and time consuming internet searches)

    Now…. I’m going to do something that causes me cognitive dissonance, partially defend the social craze. (Facebook… gak!)

    I think the main reason that the mobile and social model is so prevalent, is that we as human beings at one time in our ancient past, (Adamic) WERE of one mind. A sort of ‘hive mind’ creation. Think of it as a non-sinister form of the Borg. :-) Can you imagine that sort of existence? The flow of ideas!
    But on the dark side, this same desire seems to be tempting certain arrogant people into trying to abuse this part of our human nature and somehow ‘control’ us. Frankly, I don’t really GET why people are so jacked up to control other people. Because if you carry that to its ultimate conclusion, you (the controller) will have to end up feeding, and caring for all of your little minions. Very expensive and time consuming! Maybe I’m naive … ( Ya think?) but it just seems stupid. Who wants to create a world full of dependents? Really.

    And the other aspect of ‘social’ is what we are doing right now…. communicating ideas and thoughts, bouncing things off each other over a connected network, that if it did not exist, would most certainly keep us far apart. I will NEVER forget staring at my blue screen with white letters on it, reading posts on my first discussion board on the brand new internet. I could hardly believe that I was exchanging ideas with people on a topic that interested me greatly, sending ‘telegrams’ as fast as we could type.

    “Is that really you out there? Hey, it’s me over here! (3000 miles away) What do you think about The Guide to the Perplexed? “

    Of course that was before Googleopolis.

    Those were the days….

    (Sorry for length… I got carried away.)


  4. jaybird3rd

    I am a computer science instructor at a state university, and I also enjoy collecting vintage computer hardware and software (from the late 1970s through the very early 1990s). One of the reasons that I and other like-minded hobbyists still enjoy using these older technologies so much is precisely because of their emphasis on Stationary and Solitary computing. At the time they were made, it was a technological necessity rather than a deliberate philosophical decision, but it gives them a definite advantage today over more modern alternatives. Because they predate the Internet, applications of that era were designed to be used primarily in standalone environments. Without any notion of Internet connectivity, there is no social media integration, no constant checks for updates, no cloud storage, no DRM restrictions, no data mining, no “calling home” … no need to go online for any reason whatever. I find it very relaxing to write and do other creative work on a standalone computer equipped with the likes of WordStar or XyWrite, free of distractions and concerns about privacy and security. It’s like my own private computing universe.

    Of course, using a crusty old computer (or running software for crusty old computers on modern computers through some sort of emulation) isn’t an option for everyone, so I’ve been very interested for a while in exploring new designs which preserve that emphasis on “Stationary and Solitary” computing. I think Deborah’s post provides some intriguing ideas along those lines, so thank you, Deborah!

    Thanks also to Nicholas Carr for your vitally important work in this area. Every semester, I assign “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” as required reading to the students in my introductory computing classes, and I heartily recommend “The Shallows” to them as well (it is carried in our university library).

  5. Dan Miller

    Stationary and Solitary is a good description for a person playing a video game, especially a big-budget narrative one like Grand Theft Auto or God of War. They’re designed to be consumed alone and on a couch.

  6. Raj

    I would want to develop an app and a wearable that would silence pretty much every “stimulus” from the connected world (internet, online, etc.) and let me be. It would do this not by making me deaf and blind, but by calmly filtering out every short term twitter-type stimulus and filtering in only real-world stimulus from real people. Traffic sounds, bird chirps, sounds and views of kids playing would be in, and text message alerts, any and all electronic alerts would be out.


  7. Nick Post author

    That’s an interesting comment, Dan, as it reveals that my terms – stationary and solitary – are very much open to interpretation. I was referring to the person’s experience rather than mere physical situation. So while I would agree that it’s certainly possible for a videogame to promote an experience of solitude, I would argue that most popular games have the opposite effect. The player may be alone, but the experience remains very much “mobile” and “social” — often overwhelmingly so. Pretty much the same goes for Seth’s earlier comment.

  8. Kelly Roberts

    Something like the Digital Public Library of America is the only thing I can think of that would fit.

  9. Seth

    Nick, if you’re going for some sort of Marshall McLuhan type phrasing, you must keep in mind that the essential element there is to be as vague as possible. You’d want something more like “If Top and Charm were your polestars, rather than Bottom and Strange, what kind of apps and devices and sites would you build?” (this isn’t very good, but I’m not McLuhan).
    Using English words with any *relevant* meaning just ruins it, because that meaning is what people will see. “A videogame experience remains very much “mobile” …” doesn’t work, because the reader is caught up short by the ordinary connotations. “Print is cold while TV is hot” (or was it the reverse? I forget) does work, since it sounds profound but has nothing to break the willing suspension of disbelief.

  10. Laraine

    “Hey! How about conversations with our dearly departed sages? What if you posed a question to say… Benjamin Franklin? And the software scanned his collected works and if he had anything to say to that point, would deliver it to you? (Without the laborious and time consuming internet searches)”

    What a wonderful idea. I want this softare now.

    But while I have shared the experience of being in a discussion group on the Web with people all over the world and thinking, “Wowie, zowie, this is one of the best “seminars” I have ever participated in,” I don’t totally get the whole “mobile and social” focus since my experience of programmers is of people who feel completely at home lost in coding as they sit all alone at their machines, usually for freaking hours and with a level of concentration that excludes all human contact.

    Although I can’t code worth a damn and don’t aspire to that level of deep concentration, I too am in love with the feeling of being on to something, deep into it, so that I finally get what the author or artist was communicating or I myself can make my words say what I mean, an experience that used to be called “being in the flow,” I think, and required neither mobility nor sociability.

    Thus I don’t quite understand the current emphasis on promoting, constantly it seems, working and playing in groups, preferably on the go, which is a long way of saying, Yes to more emphasis on stationary and solitary, not just in software and hardware but in the culture as a whole. We need both ways of learning and thinking.

  11. Steve Seaberg

    “Stationary and solitary” in an objectively physical sense are what one “does” when engaged with mobile and social gadgetry. Tapping thumbs with eyes affixed to screens are quite limited engagements with the teeming world around us. “Smart” personalized technologies are engineered to capture and hold our attention such that we may be enticed to spend ever more time pursuing virtual experiences.

    There’s the trap. Time spent with gadgets takes away from and is not spent together with one another and the natural world. Media is meant to be pushed and pulled. Life doesn’t work that way, but simulations can opted for instead of the real thing, the virtual substituted for the genuine.

    I may be an exception, but at day’s end, if my time has been dominated by gadgets, I feel spent. When gadget-time is minimized or absent, I may still be exhausted, but I am also fulfilled.

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