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Digital Proxemics

How Technology Shapes the Ways We Move


John A. McArthur

The study of proxemics – the human use of space – is reimagined for the digital age in this book, a compelling examination of the future of the ways we move. Whereas much writing on the subject focuses on what digital technology might do for us, this book explores what the same technology might do to us.
Combining dynamic stories, cutting-edge research, and deep reflection on the role of space in our lives, Digital Proxemics examines the ways that our uses of physical and digital spaces and our uses of technology are converging. It investigates the role of digital communication in proxemics, offering explorations of the ways digital technology shapes our personal bodily movement, our interpersonal negotiation of social space, and our navigation of public spaces and places. Through the lens of information and user-experience design, it adds forbidden spaces, ubicomp, augmented reality, digital surveillance, and virtual reality to the growing lexicon surrounding proxemics. The result is a spatial turn in the study of digital technology and a digital turn in the study of proxemics.
As our culture changes, our ability to make choices about how to move will be called into question, as will our expectations for what roles technology will play in our lives. As we navigate this intersection, Digital Proxemics is at once a valuable lens through which we can view our shifting culture, a cautionary tale through which we might envision problematic outcomes, and an optimistic projection of possibility for the future of human communication and technology interaction.
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When people ask me what I study, I often reply, “Proxemics. The ways we use space.” What fascinates me is that every single time I offer this response, people further that idea based on their own unique experiences of space. They tell me stories about the importance of space in their lives. Some reference interpersonal distance, geography, or gesture. Some describe physical environments or places of particular significance to them. Others ask if I mean interior design, or architecture, or public performance. And still others, the science fiction buffs, immediately inquire about my political leanings: Star Trek or Star Wars? For the record, it’s Star Wars. The study of proxemics can investigate all of these things, but it is fundamentally focused on the behaviors of humans in relation to one another as they use and experience space. Each person has his own view of the ways that space is used in his life, and his own lens for understanding why space matters. The point is that all people feel a connection to space and the ways they use space, even if that connection exists under the surface of cognition, behind the walls of cultural understanding. Proxemics seems obvious when it is described to us and yet the ways we use proxemics every day exists beyond our awareness.

In 1966, Edward Hall coined the term ‘proxemics’ (pronounced präk-SEE-miks) in his book The Hidden Dimension1 to name an as-yet-undocumented aspect ← vii | viii →of our lived experience. His...

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