2014. North Carolina. Thump. Something has hit the floor. Eric Pickersgill is lying in bed. His eyes open to find his hand empty, but gripping the ghost of the phone that was there a second ago. He’s fallen asleep staring into the digital abyss.
His backside is up against his wife’s backside. His feet gently brush against hers. She too has been staring at her phone.
After the phone falls to the floor, waking him, he remembers the blank stares of a family he observed, in a cafe a few weeks prior.
That’s when the epiphany strikes him.
We’re in bed, back to back, and we’re both physically touching each other. Our rears are touching. We’re in physical contact, and yet we’re distant from each other and we’re both just engaged in our devices.
As my eyes grew heavy and I started to drift off to sleep, that’s when my hand just loosened enough for my phone to fall out and hit the floor. That sound woke me up, and my hand was resting empty next to me on the bed.
Immediately I could see the photograph that I ended up creating: my wife and me in our own bed. I didn’t make that picture immediately, but I wrote down the idea that would be one to go for. The idea, then, of the photograph with the missing device and that metaphor for absence versus presence was what I really wanted to start playing with.
Eric Pickersgill’s photography has been making its way around the world. He calls his exhibition ‘Removed’. It’s beautiful. It’s jarring. It’s us. And it was that moment of realisation in bed that started it all. Some weeks before Pickersgill had that moment of insight, he had been in a cafe and later wrote this haunting passage:
Family sitting next to me at Illium cafe in Troy, NY, is so disconnected from one another. Not much talking. Father and two daughters have their own phones out. Mom doesn’t have one or chooses to leave it put away. She stares out the window, sad and alone in the company of her closest family. Dad looks up every so often to announce some obscure piece of info he found online. Twice he goes on about a large fish that was caught. No one replies. I am saddened by the use of technology for interaction in exchange for not interacting. This has never happened before and I doubt we have scratched the surface of the social impact of this new experience. Mom has her phone out now.
After this Pickersgill started the Removed project.
Before I started Removed, my first impulse was to change my behaviour. I was unsuccessful because I didn’t establish norms. While making the pictures I became more aware of my device use, but I can’t say that successfully or substantially curbed my habits. It really wasn’t until after the project went viral, and I was on this international stage with attention, that I actually started trying to change my behaviour…
The more time we spend on these things the more money people make.
I think we’re getting to a point where there are going to be goods and services that people need in order to survive that won’t be accessible unless you have a device and have access to the network. That’s a bit troubling, right?
The amount of people who have checked their social feeds while driving, and who are also cognisant of how life-threatening that action is, yet you have that dissidence to do so. I think that that’s the exact same part of our brain that allows people to drink themselves into homelessness, or into ruining relationships in their families, or losing their jobs. I think we’re wired the same way.
Every time you open your app you get to see whether or not you’ve hit the jackpot with interactions from other people. There’s definitely research also that states that other human beings are this social creature that needs this affirmation. Community is ingrained in our biology. To simulate that community in a digital sense, and to give us that hit and that oxytocin release and endorphin release of pleasure because someone is thinking about us, or has just hit something as simple as a like - I think is completely rooted in that same kind of fundamental process of addiction.
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