While watching an episode of Mad Men, it occurred to me that smart phones are the new cigarettes. We’ve replaced one addiction with another, trading the experience of taking a drag and having an idle ponder for dragging our fingers across a screen in search of idle distraction.
Ten years ago, it was rare to see someone texting in public. The only people photographing their food were actual photographers and tourist. Blogs went months without an update. Those were quaint times. Not as quaint as the previous years of typewriters and phonographs and word processors and one-hour film developing booths. Ten years ago, we were complaining about the abbreviation of “app” for “appetizer” at TGIFriday’s. Ten years ago, it was rare to find a hotel with an in-room ethernet hook-up for internet access. Now the wi-fi waters run (mostly) free and deep and everyone’s texting and tweeting and snapping pics of everything everywhere. Instant messaging is now more instant-y than ever and there’s no excuse for being AFK or opportunity to BRB.
Look, I love the glowing screens. I’ve been staring into them for nearly 34 years. I experience minor panic whenever I’m thrust into a situation without a television and/or internet access. Television was my nanny, my first love, and my connection to the outside world. My addiction predates smart phones, social media, Web 2.0, Mac OSX, and the birth of the average Tumblr user. But even I need a break sometimes. I know when it’s time to step away from the black mirror and join the rest of humanity in meatspace. Unfortunately, meatspace is now overrun with earbuds and little glowing rectangles. And once again, I find myself in a minority.
When I go out, it’s to get away from the devices. I’ll load up a bag with my notebook and pens and go to a coffee shop for a caffeinated scribble. My favourite spot is usually filled with people having a casual chat or reading a book. I stay away from the cafes filled with laptop workers and I leave the wi-fi connection off on my ipod. I pretend to smoke and let my mind wander, free from the compulsion to press a button to release a bit of information that it won’t retain. Are we retaining any of the information we consume from our constant connection? Can you recall which site had that headline that you skimmed before checking Twitter for reactions to that headline? Can you remember whose baby-smeared-with-food photo showed up in your News Feed?
We’ve been conditioned to check email and social networking sites with the possibility of a reward. “Has so-and-so responded to my note? Oh, who clicked ‘like’ on my photo? Have there been any new tweets in the last thirty seconds?” We satisfy that mental itch only to be sent scratching away mere moments later. My diminuitive social network does not minimize my own urges to switch between the Facebook and Twitter tabs/apps. The rewards are minimal (or non-existent, if you’re in the mood to be hurtful), making my behaviour more inexplicable.
To cut oneself off from “social media,” to declare “email bankruptcy,” to disconnect from the internet entirely is a lovely fantasy. What must it be like to be without computers, mobile phones, televisions and toaster ovens, refrigerators and stereos? Oh, the sweet relief from electronic hums! Except toast is delicious and refrigerators are quite handy. You could purge yourself of all technology, but you’ll be leading an inconvenient life in the modern world. Every generation, or sub-generation, now has to make the choice of being deemed irrelevant or adopt and adapt every new technological “upgrade” and social media “innovation.” It’s becoming impossible to say “No, thank you. I’ll sit this technology fad out and join in again later.” Mostly it’s impossible because technology won’t allow it. Which is why we’ve gone through five generations of iPhones in just five years.
Is it ridiculous that iPads and tablets have built-in cameras? I’ve certainly found it handy in sneaking photos of my camera-shy cats. But apparently it’s considered rude or something to use one’s iPad to record an event or take photographs in public. It looks stupid to some people and they would prefer if the iPad people would stop doing it. Who decided there was a size limit on obnoxious behaviour? “Please don’t hold up your big flat glowing rectangle to photograph that concert (that has clearly posted “Photography and Video Recording Prohibited” signs all over the venue)” says them. “But it’s totally cool if you hold up your smaller flat glowing rectangle (even though recording is still a no-no, but maybe you’ll be a bit more discreet).”
Built-in cameras mean that everyone’s a photographer now. Take a photo, slap a filter on it, and post it on the Internet. Welcome to everyone’s holiday slideshow. It’s easy to dismiss the glut of candid photos and videos as noise until something big happens. We live in the era of Threat-Level Scary and crime procedurals, which fuels the need to capture every moment for the what-ifs. Every event has the potential for a breakout buzzy moment. Someone could jump on a stage and do something wacky. Something could erupt. History is being made somewhere. Concerned citizens become journalists and papparazzi. The rest of us become observers and commenters.
On the average day, the smart phone just contributes to man’s obliviousness to man. People are in the cinema right now, blithely texting away like they’re in their living room, unable (or unwilling) to notice how bright their little rectangles glow in a darkened room, unaware that their faces are illuminated by their ignorance.
Will the pendulum swing back to more natural pursuits? Will Pinterest links to DIY tutorials pique the general public’s interest in making and doing things for themselves? Will we ever yearn for the reward of hard work and manual labour? Isn’t the result of churning one’s own butter or mending one’s own trousers much more satisfying than the swiping of screens and pressing of buttons in pursuit of “information”? The possibility remains that we’ll kick this technological dependency in my lifetime, by choice or by force. Some entrepreneur will tire of his food truck and discover there’s money to be made in technology rehabilitation centres. In another ten years, I could be sat in some hospital playing with a grown-up busy box to break myself of my crippling addiction to refreshing the Facebook home page. Maybe then I’ll finally learn a skill that can be monetized in the real world.
Step away from your electronic device. Go look at the sunset. Watch the squirrels. Look at how the sun streams into your backyard at a particular time of day and illuminates a spider web that’s seemingly floating in midair. Have you noticed that before? How many times have you almost walked into that thing? Is that squirrel smoking a cigarette?