Living, Social and Digital Worlds

Posted on June 22, 2010


Sorry, this post is still in progress.

On my birthday, as it happened, I chaperoned four first grade boys at the Philadelphia Zoo. I decided life would be easier if I didn’t attempt to steer them much, so I asked them what they wanted to see and do and followed their lead.  Eli wanted to visit the prairie dogs, Drew wanted to see the McNeil Avian Center, Kaelin wanted to see the big cats, and Arkady (my son) wanted to see the okapi (who appears to be friendly with the rhinoceros in the adjacent pen). My point is that I didn’t direct the four of them much or say, “c’mon, let’s go to the next exhibit.” I simply watched and enjoyed the four of them being little boys. This gave me an opportunity to observe how they responded to the various information and activities available to them. They were free to linger as long as they liked, or scurry ahead.

The marvelous complex of the zoo with its venerable stone buildings, bronze statuary and mature trees gave me an opportunity to think about the menu of surroundings from the living (or “natural”), to socially constructed worlds, to digital or virtual representations offered to them. I have represented this spectrum in the simplest terms with the photograph here of a 1) borough hall tower, 2) an antenna and 3) encroaching trees. That is: 1) the world of the social (represented by a municipal building), 2) transmitted and received signals that are “real” in and of themselves but refer back to social and living realities, and 3) (vegetable) life growing into the space of the other two.

Because of its special cases of living animals in enclosures where they can be observed by humans, however, the zoo affords some special cases and underscores further nuances of the continuum.