One day during the 1980’s I was in my dad’s study, and he was showing me his new Commodore computer. He said to me then that the wave of the future was going to be electronic devices for communication that in twenty years would make the world as we knew it unrecognizable. Little did I know at that time how accurate Dad’s prediction was.
I seem to live in a perpetual struggle between my appreciation of and my aversion to technology. Electronic strides in computers and cellphones are being made so fast that I have hardly enough time to turn around before the next upgrade, update, or replacement is required. I use the word “required” in this instance only in the sense that we are all made to feel out of date if something is not brand new. For example, my cellphone is an old flip phone, small, uncomplicated, and unencumbered by a catalog of “apps” I would never use anyway. It doesn’t play music, show movies, make coffee, or toast muffins. It sends and receives calls efficiently with a long battery life. That’s all. Other features for the newest phones seem as silly as those on a future electric razor that might include apps for doing yard work too. There’s a limit to my sense of humor about these things.
There have been times recently when while I was using my cellphone in public, people stared at me as though I were wearing a powdered wig and buckled shoes. I like my 1997 car, my 1968 electric coffee pot, and my 1965 toaster, all in perfect condition, and the money I might otherwise have spent on newer versions (to impress the world around me?) is in my bank account instead. Almost any replacements would probably have been made in China, so it’s not as though I’m personally stifling the American economy by not feeling obligated to “keep up.”
The phenomenon that continues to fascinate and repulse me at once is our national obsession with texting, that abbreviation of what we used to call communication and even conversation. What is there about this technical sensation that can turn people into robots, keeping them chained to the beep or other signal that the next message has arrived? Egotism? Texting has fostered a kind of modern rudeness that Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov would have loved to satirize. I’ve been in homes where family members in the same room were texting each other, and I’ve been in restaurants where people with their dates were texting during dinner (not necessarily to each other), or talking on cellphones as though the person with whom he or she was having dinner weren’t even there. It seems obvious to me that this is not being “connected.” In fact, it is being separated, distanced, and disengaged in such subtle ways that many people haven’t even noticed how utterly outrageous such scenes can really be.
At the dealership where I had my car serviced this morning I was reading my Kindle to pass the time. Others in the same waiting room were on cellphones, texting, or playing games on their phones. We were all like electronic mannequins in a big box, wired to be activated by the push of some remote button. There was no conversation or interaction among us. I was as guilty as everyone else. The most human among us was a man who was snoring while fast asleep in a corner chair. I used to feel free to look at people to make simple comments or ask questions in public places. Now there is often the fear of interrupting a phone game or texting, even though the message often turns out to be nothing more than, “Hey…what’s up? Nothing here.”
Maybe as we become more crowded on our planet, especially in public gathering places, we begin to feel more protective of our immediate space. What better means to keep other people away from our physical areas than with cellphones or texting devices? People used to use newspapers similarly on trains and buses to close themselves off, as though in separate paper cubicles to avoid any possible conversation or other invasion of their solitude.
With all our new ways of “communicating” electronically, we are more isolated than ever. I don’t know if it’s the comforting illusion of being “connected” constantly, or the sheer terror of being out of the network of modernity, but the world to me over the past few years has begun to resemble a kind of science fiction story in which individuals believe that the cure for loneliness is simply an electronic device in one’s pocket or purse, the buttons of which will keep everyone from ever feeling quarantined again so that finally, battery chargers will become more important to supporting this grand illusion than human beings themselves. JB