I remember that afternoon distinctly. It was an overcast spring afternoon and the light was soft and cast beautiful shadows. I was sitting having a cup of qehvah on a side street of Main Market, Lahore, the only woman in a street filled with men. Most of them didn’t know how to look at me, or how to read me. Either they would smirk at my companion, also a man, assuming that we were out on a date, or they would drop their gaze entirely, avoiding any kind of eye contact. It all changed when I brought out my camera. I asked my friend to check in with the storeowners and street inhabitants if it was okay to shoot. He worked in the neighborhood, and was acquainted with the locals. I started filming the street, moving from one end of the street to the other. There was a man sitting behind a cash register, fried fish laid out in front of him. He was a fishmonger with a beautiful face, old and lined, age lying with grace on him. I spoke to him through my camera, asking if it was okay to shoot him. I saw him nod and smile through my camera’s viewfinder. We chatted briefly about the day’s catch. I moved on. Young boys were painting calligraphic signs next door. Soon a crowd gathered around me, as I slowly moved down the street. Men selling cups of tea, next to sign painters, next to a cobbler, and on it went. At times I was refused in my request to film, at other times I was given a quick nod and a smile, and some times I was drawn into conversation. Something had changed — I was no longer a woman who could not be engaged with. I was instead an archivist, a filmmaker, a documentarian, and a witness to their lives with a camera.
It might be counter-intuitive, as we have been conditioned to believe that as our lifestyles become more mechanized, we lose touch with our selves, our sensory experiences, and even with our humanity. However, I have come to believe that technology in fact humanizes us, and it creates space for interaction and engagement. It creates room for inquiry and a point of interception. It allows for a node where strangers can overcome awkwardness, or norms of respect for privacy and space, and reach out to each other. Is it possible that our use of technology has become so naturalized that it has displaced our sense of comfort and familiarity with other humans? It is entirely possible.
This is not entirely without context — we live in a world that is saturated with hyper-mediation. Media and its material objects contain our lives and the meanings we produce from living. We live in an age of technology, where connectedness and access to information is not anymore considered a luxury, but a basic need and right. As I write this, efforts are being made in Germany by groups of volunteers to provide access to free WiFi to refugees. We have come to anticipate technology in our midst. We expect to be surrounded by it, enmeshed in it, encircled by it, and connected to one another through it. We preempt material objects of technology and media in the everyday, such as security cameras, cell phones, smart phones, tablets, speakers, mechanized infrastructure, and platforms of social media. Our response to technology and mediated spheres is our response to modern living. It is our jaded response to a surveillance state, to hyperaware notions of time and space that can be collapsed into visual and oral bytes of information to be shared and consumed. It is our response to the making public of private lives, and the contestation of what privacy can and should be.
Laura Marks identifies this form of behavior in her essay “Immigrant Semiosis,” as a move away from immediate experiences, towards apprehending the world through information processing. She classifies direct, sensory experience as “Firstness,” a term meant to indicate “a moment of affect, of wonderment in the sensory brush with the world, of latency.”  As these experiences of Firstness are elided, our engagement with one another and with the world is increasingly conducted through a series of interfaces. She notes that when we stop at red signals, or salivate upon seeing a certain brand of ramen noodles, these actions are the result of deeply ingrained instructions, coded and hard-wired into our memory and neurons. Thus, we respond without thinking, without feeling; we respond in specific ways as we have been programmed to.
However, Marks does not qualify information processing as an entirely negative practice: “information culture also introduces a new kind of Firstness into experience…a more promising route back to First is through these media that speak directly to our bodies without harnessing affect to an instrumental chain.” Are we then finding ways to communicate with and through media as a new kind of simulated direct experience? In this technological turn, can Firstness be reclaimed and re-invented?
Marks is less critical than E.M. Forster in his 1909 novella, The Machine Stops, a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that heralds the age of the Machine as a downward spiral into devastation. “You know that we have lost our sense of space. We say “space is annihilated,” but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof.” Forster holds mechanized reality, the Machine, wholly culpable for the death of a shared human experience. The novella does not offer the hope of a possible emergent new future, but rather ends with destruction of everything that has existed. This is where Marks’ analysis diverges as she offers new possibilities, and a new understanding of what Firstness or Secondness might mean in today’s world.
This is an epoch of mediated reality. We use machines and media to make our interactive experiences more connected. How do we then challenge our understanding of technology as antithetical to human contact and connections? Additionally, how do we search for meaning outside of what is imposed upon us? How do we create meaningful experiences, rich with all kinds of affective meaning and layers of information and feeling? Is it possible?
While we wait with dread for the day that the Machine might stop or implode — the arrival of the year 2000 with paranoia around the Millennium Bug is not so distant a memory to be entirely forgotten – we can simultaneously remember our bodies, choose to live in a state of being present, and not forget to communicate, whether it happens to be through technological interfaces, material media, or hand signs.