I am a digital immigrant who does not, under any circumstances, wish to become a citizen.
It was with reluctance that I accepted a cell phone (my first) a few years ago. I had clung to my precious LAN line, foregoing the freedom from effort, however extraordinary it might have been, of being able to exchange small talk with friends while I was out and about yet all by my lonesome. I was immediately self-conscious, lest I subject or expose the people around me to my reasonless noise—the pollution of personal information. Mine rings, I leave the room. Half the time I don’t even answer. And every two or three weeks I revisit the increasingly powerful, not quite primal urge to pull the little black telephone from my pocket and throw it as hard as I can. Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the only person that I own the thing for in the first place always stops me.
Leaving my apartment these days, I’m quickly surrounded by little knots of people packed onto buses, lining streets and hallways all of whom would rather be alone, texting and chatting, emailing and tweeting than bother with a face-to-face conversation. They seem to prefer to stare into the great, gaping void of their devices, be they smartphones, laptops, e-readers or tablets. With an MP3 player and earbuds you can shut out the world entire. I’m aware that we all need to escape now and then—for me an occasional day off with a Russian novel is a great way—but is this daily enforced solitude healthy? This almost total disconnection?
We’re familiar with the stories of people walking off of piers or into the fountain at the mall while they babble or text, but a few months ago, a student was shot in the back as he sat aboard a train in San Francisco. Police revealed, after looking at video of the attack, that his attacker had been waving a pistol and pointing it at the other passengers for some time. No one saw him. They were too engrossed in their smartphones, only looking up when he fired the fatal shot.
Now that the box is open there’s no turning back. What is it about this new way that captivates and comforts the masses so? Is it the convenience that technology has given us for nearly everything in life? Is this really progress? Or are we simply gerbils, spending our lives on wax paper, experimented upon by those whose empires depend on our spending and consumption?
Since before the internal combustion engine, creativity has been an enormous part of what separates us from the horses on whose backs we once sat. We lived by candlelight once, did we not? Without the proliferation of technological innovation there would be, for example, no modern medicine. Disease would go uncured, unexamined even. Suppressing technology could have greater consequences than shrugging your shoulders when someone passes in their Hummer, texting with both hands and steering with their knee. Why, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice to pass up the chance to better the world through the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. My argument here is not that we should attempt to put a halt to technology, but that we should, moving forward, refrain from allowing our creations to control us. I’m calling for a limited use of technology. Unplug yourself, leave your phone at home once in a while.
We have the capability of altering the landscape of a continent through the use of nuclear weapons. Our abstention from using them isn’t because—after the disaster that was World War II—we didn’t find their power impressive enough. It was because we understood how destructive and final their pronouncements could be. The same goes for the little girl who grows up knowing only how to relate to friends when they’re on the other side of a screen because her folks gave her her first cell phone before her first bicycle.
I believe that we as a society (and as a species) have fallen out of sync with our natural social tendencies, fallen from the ledge of cohesion and commonality because of our digital dependence. This isn’t merely relegated to a particular age group. For instance, while the Millennial Generation contains within it the nucleus of Internet addiction, my own father, a greying Baby Boomer, has decided to simplify his life by purchasing everything online, right down to his groceries and his underwear. He doesn’t see the need to frequent bricks and mortar businesses, doesn’t care that they need customers as badly as Amazon does.
If this is only the beginning of the Digital Revolution, will I live long enough to see the day when man and device are one? It was hard enough to take a person seriously with a tiny Bluetooth clipped to their ear. That device has already been upstaged by glasses that allow its owner to violate the civil liberties of others by photographing and videotaping them without their knowledge.
As I write this, I’m in a café several blocks from campus. Eight of the other nineteen people here are relating to one another face to face. The rest are otherwise engaged. An older fellow on the other side of the table across from me just got off the phone, the surface of his spectacles reflecting a website he’s examining.
Put down your devices, I say—unplug yourself!—fill our street corners with people interacting with the world. Enjoy the greenery that Seattle is famous for instead of sitting around playing video games and watching Youtube. You could be enjoying the beauty of fall, instead of jaywalking into traffic staring at your device like a monkey holding up a rock.
Here in the café, that same older fellow is now having a very animated conversation with someone on the screen of the laptop he’s currently ogling. As I get up to leave, his voice echoes.
(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA–Dec. 2013)