In this study the presence of a person means in the first instance that this particular person is alive. It refers to breathing and a heart that beats. In medical practice and in religious contexts many debates pose the question of what being alive actually means. How many vital functions have to work for a person to be alive? When does a foetus become a child and when is a person declared dead? When a body dies what happens to the soul? Even though these questions can have a great deal of impact on people's lives, for this study I take the position that being present in the world refers to being alive as a body and being able to act. When we fall ill, mentally or physically, the world changes, our presence changes but we can still act. When we die, we are no longer there, according to the definition of presence chosen here. When we do not breathe, our heart does not beat and we cannot act any longer, we have lost our presence in this world. There are debates - moral, ethical, scientific, religious - about when life starts and when life ends. This study does not elaborate on any of these. It takes presence as a characteristic of people who are alive and can act as the starting point of its reasoning.
Our physical presence in this world is bound to place and time. A person is born in a particular place and at a particular time, then life continues until we die at a particular time and place. In our lives we pass through many places and experience all kinds of time. With no conscious effort we grow and age, the energy of life itself makes us move and change continually. Our senses and our cognitive and emotional capabilities inform our organism how to act. We perceive, understand, copy, learn, act and deal with the consequences. Human beings have an inner drive for survival, which builds on all these elements, on the social as well as on the individual.note 52
Being physically present somewhere informs us via all of our senses about what is happening in this place at this time. It informs us about the environment and about the other creatures there, including human beings. When two people meet, they find out how to meet in the instant that they meet. Culture's social codes, the environment, the known historical context all inform the two people as to how they will meet. In all these given elements of a situation there is yet another layer of exchange that is defined by the perception of one another. We perceive each other in context, but we also physically perceive each other person to person. Because of these perceptions we find we fall in love, make war, take care of each other or sit and talk. Such simple facts of life have kept people occupied for centuries. And over time we have evaluated, become civilized and developed our societies, our practices, our knowledge and sciences.
This may all sound rather trivial, but since I study the design of presence in environments in which technology plays a crucial role, I have to understand and state the obvious again. We are mortal beings, we have physical presence and our bodies bear this presence.
Current understanding of evolution explains that as a species we have been developing for a considerable time: from wandering groups of 'savages' to tribes with certain rules, to communities cultivating the land, to the social organization of skills, knowledge and power in regions, cities and countries, to industrialization with its division of labour and development of the idea of 'the masses', to the global economy of today in which digital technology plays an important role. The evolution of humankind has also influenced our sense of presence. This is relevant for my research question. When designing future presences with the use of information and communication technologies, it makes sense to understand how our idea and sense of presence has evolved. What kind of adaptations did humans make in their way of being present in the environmental and social structures they were part of? To get a better understanding of how people adapt to new requirements for their 'presence-mode', detailed moments of presence change will be analysed in the case studies.