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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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Chapter 3. Distancing Ourselves


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My first ride on a subway was on the Metro in Paris, France. We were travelling from our hotel to the Anvers station near Sacre Couer in the hilly Montmartre region of the city. Luckily for me, I was not in charge of navigating the Paris Metro on my own for my first subway experience. I remember two things about the experience. First, the view of the city from the hilltop basilica captivates the eyes in the early evening, just as the illumination of the Eiffel Tower begins. Second, the Metro doors seemed to close awfully fast. Several members of our group ran to board the train, but the doors closed and the train moved onward. As we left them behind, in my naiveté surrounding Metro transportation, I guess I didn’t realize that they could just catch the next one.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed a healthy fascination with rapid transit systems, their navigation principles, the designs of their maps, and the role of rapid transit in urban centers. But none of these interests can top the unique experiences that rapid transit offers in the negotiation of interpersonal distances. Take a ride on the subway, underground, metro, or train in an urban center and you can practice this negotiation and experiment with its principles.

The subway car is a closed environment1 in which we negotiate space each time people enter or exit. Then, we remain still while we...

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