Witnessing histories being made…

Suburban Square is one of the oldest outdoor malls in the country. It is a rectangle approximately the size of four full city blocks in Philadelphia or the size of the space it takes to walk between two avenues in New York City.  The specific area where I chose to do my observation is contained within that space. It is an open air courtyard approximately the size of two city blocks long and as wide as a large convenience store. In fact, the space is actually more an L shape, but I concerned myself with the top most rectangle of the L because it is larger and more near my work place. The space I chose is roughly oriented east/west. On the South side of the space is a large, view-obstructing, eight floor professional building that looks over the square like a monolith. The building is home to the square’s administrative offices primarily, as well as my private dentist on the sixth floor. Next to that, moving west on the South side, is a restaurant called The Saint James and an unoccupied space that used to be inhabited by a City Sports. On the North side of the courtyard, moving east to west, is the side of, structurally speaking, one of the oldest Macy’s and further down a day spa. The east side of this space is closed in by a mall utility road and the west side hooks to the bottom of the L shaped courtyard to open to another mall utility road. The whole space is completely confined within the square itself and the only major road it nears is more than a few hundred feet away, so it is relatively cut off from the sounds of traffic. This is a perk to choosing it.

It is a symmetrical, terraced, landscaped courtyard with a centralized concrete area about halfway down its length that provides public tables for the square’s inhabitants to eat, rest, read or take their lunch breaks. Within range of the space I chose, across the eastern most utility road, is the stand alone Apple store, where I work, and a jeweler named Govberg. There’s not a lot of prominent advertising within this space because one of the motifs of the square’s design is minimalism. The most advertising that is offered is the window displays of the various businesses and their signs. Many of the businesses in the square, including my work, offer available wifi. Apple’s wifi is free to the public, but it is far out of range when sitting in the middle of the courtyard. Other businesses that are in range of the courtyard do not offer free wifi, so only patrons of these businesses can access their wifi networks.

Many of the people walking through the courtyard carry iPhones or iPads because they are coming to or from sales transactions or repair transactions at the Apple store. Additionally, most people I’ve interacted with in the area carry mobile devices for business, use them to represent status, or outfit the members of their family with them for communication. Suburban Square is nestled in Lower Merion Township, which contains the boroughs of Ardmore and Gladwyne, two villages of Pennsylvania built primarily from old main line money at the turn of last century and a lot of the inhabitants are affluent. Mostly because of Apple, a farmer’s market on the far east side of the square and a Starbucks, the square is frequented by people of many different ethnic backgrounds. The store also attracts differing levels of financial stratum, a diverse group of cultures, and many different religions. However, my observations, recorded during two separate hour long lunch breaks spread over two days, did not record much diversity in terms of ethnic or cultural background of people who sat around me. My assumption is that the people I witnessed using the square’s courtyard are not the same subset of people that I witness using the Apple store’s sales and repair services when I work. The customer base at the Apple store is represented by a very manifold focus group of people.

Over the course of both days on my lunch break, most of the people I saw were professional types, wearing professional attire – business suits, etc.  All of the people I saw were white. There was one moment when a housewife or single mother walked by briskly talking on her cellphone wedged between her shoulder and ear. Behind her, she dragged a boy of nine or ten by the hand and as he dragged his even younger sister by her hand. A lot of the people I witnessed were eating at Saint James in the courtyard because the weather was warm one of the days.  Tables had been set out in the area for patrons. Most arrived as couples, ate their lunch and were joined by a third or even fourth person later. I saw a about seven or eight individuals by themselves over the course of these two days total. One of them was a female runner who ran through the square with an iPhone on an armband being used to I presume listen to music or radio.  There were only two people, besides the two children I saw, who didn’t have cell phones or should I say: did not reveal them. One was an old man who appeared to be waiting for someone and kept fidgeting with his watch. The other was an Hassidic man (Merion, PA has a strong Hassidic Jewish community) reading a book in the square whose eyes never left the pages. At one point, a whole table of teenage girls sat down together at Saint James, were greeted by a waiter, and only looked up from their cell phones to tell him their orders. All of them used the meta space primarily, keeping their attention focused in their mobiles, and only spoke to each other when something relevant in the meta space happened and they wanted to discuss it directly with each other at the table (I believe they were talking about boys, but I wasn’t that close in ear shot to make it all out).

I work all day long with people and their mobile devices. Contrary to popular understanding, much of what I do at Apple is not the repair of customer devices. Much of it is observation. I spend most of my day observing the mobile habits of users, informing customers of ways to incorporate more of their habits within their use of their mobile devices, and helping them to see that how they are currently using their mobile device may not be conducive to a longer termed efficiency with the device. The assumptions that mobile devices are ephemeral machines only capable of recording the present is something I observe throughout most of my days with customers. I spend a lot of my day aligning with customers to help them plan ways to use their phones for the future and better in the future. My biggest frustration comes from the fact that, despite my best efforts, the corporation I work for acts against my ideals by constantly marketing a more fleeting relationship with devices. A majority of my customers want to take my advice and use their phones with the future in mind. For example, Apple encourages customers to use the amazing HD camera and high resolution video to record their memories. Yet, even though this seems like a great intention in its inception, there is no follow through from the company by offering a viable place to store the recorded memories. Additionally, there seems to be no guarantee from some of the biggest tech companies of a way for customers to organize and store these memories for the future or future generations. We say “clouds,” but my observations in my job tell me that most companies’ clouds are not ready for large volumes of customer data. The only real storage space that is viable to customers for storing their memories are disposable external hard drives (another product with a fleeting customer relationship). In fact, many days my job becomes a process of helping customers to pick and choose from their memories for deletion. Companies are telling us all to root out photos or videos taken that are of less importance and remove them to save space.

My argument is that all memories are important. Our families should own the spaces where we put our memories just like we own a photo album. A company should help us to guarantee a digital space for our future and our memories. The constant process of deleting memories or losing them to failed external hard drives should stop. Additionally, blindly putting the images on servers not wholly owned by us is not taking our futures into our own hands. Learning from my observations, my belief is that a majority of people use mobile devices to keep a personal history. They may not be fully cognizant of this fact, but those who become aware of it or are already on board should demand a company give them the tools to fully and formally make an aural and visual history of their life in preparation for the future.

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One thought on “Witnessing histories being made…”

  1. Given your title and preference for more theoretical ideas than most, I think John Durham Peters work on “Witnessing” might provide a useful theoretical tool for your paper and design. The article is here, but the ideas are also conveyed in his book “Speaking Into the Air.” Related to that, research on public memory, journaling, and/or archives might be useful as well. Lee Humphrey’s work on Twitter and diaries might also be useful.

    One thing to consider in designing an app to help people take their history in their own hands is the fact that despite common discourse to the contrary digital information is fragile. Formats change, hardware changes, new hardware can’t run old software without some sort of added code to emulate the old programs. How might you create a design that can adapt more readily to changing technology overtime? This site might provide some helpful insights. More research on the fragility of digital formats will help you think through the design implications of a project that looks so far into the future.

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