Physical, Virtual

There is no such thing as getting away from first hand experience, is there? I mean even though we can become mentally preoccupied with something remote, drift off or zone out, we are always physically present in time and space. We are located. All experience is local and our mental activities happen through the context of our physical presence in some place.

In many jobs we grow farther and farther from direct physical experience. This was true for me as a programmer. It is a type of work that is mostly a lot of thinking about business problems, talking with others, and writing code. Even though we are whole bodies, not just brains, the only physical activity of this type of work is literally typing. The negative health aspects of the sedentary lifestyle are well known, and can be mitigated some through exercise, breaks, the use of standing desks, etc. For me, too much purely intellectual work had another effect. It diminished the fullness of the physical nature of being present in the world. It began to feel that because so much of my time during the day was just mental activity that life was passing me by. This caused me to pay greater attention to what I was experiencing, and examine how my thoughts were being shaped by it. It was not too much routine really, but I came to see how the habits of work created habits of thought. Developers are always being given problems to solve. Indeed the very language of this field describes things in terms of problems and solutions. There is a whole industry of “solution providers” for hire. This kind of work experience is very lucrative, and it can certainly be rewarding to work through the technical challenges that present themselves on a digital technology project. Yet all the while I sensed that the world that was literally under my nose, literally within arm’s reach, was somehow absent. And so I found myself writing about aspects of experience that were as physical as I could think of: textural, palpable, tactile. Not virtual, not mental, not smooth, and curiously, not designed, not too intentional. I found that when my thinking was not specifically oriented towards tasks like determining root cause, designing or building something, I was left with things like observation and description. Feeling out of touch of with the physical world, perhaps this is why when I returned to making art again it was through drawing.

When we walk on the beach we take off our shoes and socks precisely because we want to feel the earth against our feet. We want to feel the roughness of the sand, the wetness of it, and the way it collapses under our weight. Why is that? Why are some of us drawn back to experiencing the texture of life first hand? Similar to making pottery, sculpture, or even mud pies, charcoal drawing has a certain pleasure about it precisely because it is a type of work that requires motion, and you are in direct contact with the thing you are making. Even though this kind of simple joy feels as natural as eating something tasty, we regard it as sort of primitive, child-like, or somehow more animal. These qualities are somehow seen as lesser in value than those which engage the “higher” functions of the brain. Not only do we seem to be moving towards greater and greater virtualization, it has even become common in science fiction to posit a world in which human beings are pure spirit, finally freed from the prisons of physical bodies. Why this compulsion to shed our skins? Has the physical aspect of living become so bad for so many that we seek to escape it?