Chapter 2. A Growing Challenge

Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.


Early Disruptions

THE AIRPORT SCENARIO PRESENTED IN Chapter 1 IS JUST A MUNDANE EXAMPLE OF A BIGGER ISSUE: context is a lot more complicated than it used to be, and it is only going to become more disrupted and detached from the physical clues we’ve relied on until now. For most of human existence, the context of people, places, and objects has been pretty straightforward. If you’re in a field surrounded by trees, that’s where you are. The field won’t magically transform into a bustling village square in the blink of an eye. If you pick up a tool, a hammer perhaps, it does what its form suggests it will do. Physical laws dictate that the concrete world behaves in certain ways that we evolved to comprehend, usually with little or no explicit thought. So bodies and brains developed to prefer environments in which we don’t have to think so hard about what we’re doing.

But contemporary life is more complex. Now, we’re surrounded by stuff that requires conscious thought for us to get what we need from it. For a long time, technology has been chipping away at the immediate clarity of context. The invention of writing meant that something said (written) in one place could be read—and therefore, “said” all over again—anywhere the document might go, separate from its original utterance. Writing thus set the ...

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