March 12th, 2017
Great post the other day by Ross Douthat in the NY Times (“Resist the Internet”) about what it would look like to put some controls on our largely unfettered use and abuse of the internet (which means our use and abuse of handheld smart devices, since that’s increasingly what the internet means for most people). Made me think about these little portals, these glowy rectangles that have increasingly assumed more and more power in our lives.
(Warning: Old-man get-off-my-lawn screed approacheth; back out now if you’ve had your fill of this kind of thing) It used to be on the subway that, at any given moment, a handful of people would be staring at their little gadgets. “Handful” turned into “some”. “Some” became “half”. Now, most mornings, it’s a depressingly clear “most”. Most people standing or sitting, necks craned, staring at their pocketsized diminishments of reality, these dinky sheeny holes displaying their dinky sheeny objects. Compulsively caressing, petting, stroking their screens. Like they were wee flat beasts that needed constant reassurance. And these are capable, smart New Yorkers who know better, who deep down know that it’s basically an erosion of the human spirit to choose to live in the thrall of these overpriced little gadgets, huffing and puffing away on the consumer hamsterwheel, chasing after the next upgrade & OS & Yosemite this and Lollipop that. Capable, smart New Yorkers who know all this but give in anyway, shrugging & grinning “can’t help myself” gotta like/retweet/follow Bejeweled triple bonus Flappy Bird double swipe zoom-in zoom-out look at my favorite photos scrollscrollscroll. (Just like smart people who knew better than to binge-watch shit reality shows and humiliation shows when they started to creep into the collective unconscious years ago. Who helped create our current debased cultural moment by consuming & thereby normalizing that televised pustulence. Who knew better but did it anyway because it’s “a train wreck” that they “have to watch”; because it’s their “guilty indulgence.”)
Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not against technology, or mobile smart devices. Tech is a tool, it’s neutral. I’m against the irresponsible over-use of all this crap, the voluntary submission to them so that they are no longer just helpful tools, means to ends, but ends themselves. I’m against handing our lives over to smart devices while doing little more with them than using our fingertips to scroll through Pinterest galleries, mind-deadening Facebook feeds, and shitty video games (all the while gifting our privacy and life details to third party data brokers and, really, in this age of WikiLeaks and infinite data persistence, anyone else online who wants them).
So, case in point. This guy sits down next to me the other day, healthy looking jogger-Dad type, smiley. Seemingly good disposition. White earbuds in. Instantly, upon sitting, he whips out his glowy portal and starts racing through imagery. Not pausing once. Just swiping through his family photos, kids’ photos, cars, motorbikes, Hallmark animal card greetings, landscapes, images of inspirational quotes, 1-2 seconds of random video clips. Zooming in and out of shit super-fast. Rapidfire unthinking supercaffeinated whizzing through so much visual data.
I was dumbfounded. Was this guy registering anything? What could he possibly be doing with all this visual info whizzing by him at such a speed? Just channel surfing gone mad, but it’s not even like he was cycling through TV channels with the reasonable chance of stumbling upon developed content offerings, maybe a movie or a televised drama, i.e. something external and with possible redeeming intellectual and cultural value of you that can communicate back *to* you. No, he was just media surfing his own fucking life, not even using his $700 device (with $100 monthly plan) to do something other than stare back in the mirror at himself.
And that, in a nutshell, as I’ve observed it, sums up many folks’ usage of mobile smart devices (which is another of way of saying: that sums up what many people do for alarming chunks of the day). I.e., curating & living within sprawling unedited virtual galleries of the narrow world of selfies and selfies of loved ones. And favoriting Instagram brunch shots.
I will be accused of curmudgeoning hyperbole. I will be reminded that, in using portable smart-devices, not everyone on a morning NYC commute is wasting time, running away from something more important or growing disconnected from external reality with time-wasting junk-tasks. I will be reminded that some are watching movies or TV shows. Maybe movies or shows of high aesthetic merit. Movies or shows … displayed on a screen the size of a fucking playing card. Which of course invalidates the entire experience. Like listening to a symphony through a cheap transistor radio with bad batteries: you’re cheating yourself and the art. Don’t do it.
What else do people say to justify their gadget-addiction at 730 AM? “Reading” documents, online news, digital books, digital textbooks. Indefensible right? How could you slag on that. Easy: to read a digital text is a sad, impoverished experience compared to holding and reading an actual book or magazine, and only excusable in the pained or infirm (hardbacks are heavy). As for viewing 8×11 documents on a smartphone — the absurd, painful process of zooming in and around a work PDF on a dinky screen bears so little resemblance to the practice of reading a printout in your two hands that it becomes some other alien activity altogether. It’s such a bizarre, sad, self-imposed hobbling. Print the fucking page out and take it with you and read it. Seeing someone zoom in and out of a PDF by breaking it into quadrants in order to view it piecemeal on their micro machine is like seeing someone buy a pair of ash-covered glasses and get excited that there’s this little teensy corner of one lens where the light can shine through. “Holy cow, this is so cool, my shit-lenses let in a micron of sun! Check this out man! Wanna try em on?”. Take off the glasses and live. And hold something in your hands when you want to read.
Now, smart devices used in moderation can do all sorts of obvious good. The potential for edification and meaningful interaction is limitless. Good things to do with your very expensive little glow-portal: a) use the voice memo function for journalling or music composition; b) use the notepad function to jot down notes; c) use an electronic dictionary and/or thesaurus; d) use the camera and video-camera (to take occasional, selective photos and clips, not to document your every waking hour); f) listen to good music (full quality audio files, no garbage mp3s); g) communicate via SMS (communicate, not spray out stupid abbreviations and LOLs and TTYLs).
See? Never let it be said that I’m a total luddite asshole; asshole I am, I just like mobile smart-devices to know their place, which is as non-essential accessories to actual living (notice how none of the functions I listed is irreplaceable via some low/non-tech means). They are merely optional helpers that are designed to be turned off and put away when we’re talking to people, walking around in parks, sitting down in front of your stereo listening to a full record, having fun at a party, hell, being OUT IN THE WORLD. The second you start feeling you “depend” on your fucking $700 card-deck “second brain”, the second you feel like your life would “fall apart” if your phone got stolen, is the second you need to look and the mirror and ask yourself whether your dignity is worth your convenience, and if it is, don’t have kids, and if you had them already, for Pete’s sake, teach them a better way to be.
So back to nice-seeming jogger-dad dude. There I was, next to this entranced super-swiper, & I felt like a prick judging him. But judge I did, because that’s our job as humans: develop principals and boundaries and hold ourselves and others to them. And so I wanted to ask this dude, “Hey, hey man, are you okay? Can you slow down and breathe? Can you look around a little? Do you know where you are? Look, look up, look at that design on that dress, look at that beautiful kid’s face in that stroller, look at that shitty MTA poem on the placard on the wall, look at that badly carved graffiti from 1987, look at that woman’s gorgeous ass (be smart about it), look at that dead roach, listen to that train conductor’s weird voice, listen to the weird, cool drones and grinds of the speeding train, listen to the conversation of the teens a few feet over, breathe, feel your feet on the floor, feel your ass on the seat, listen, feel, smell (okay, don’t do that, it’s an NYC subway after all), look, but for fuck’s sake look anywhere but down at that rectangle. Because that’s not life. That’s fake, that’s a debasement, that’s a reduction, that’s a cheapening of you, that’s could be your coffin.”
But, of course, I didn’t say shit. I was too busy isolating from the world in my own way, failing to pay attention to its beauty, and running away from my daily stresses in my own little special way, safe & sound in my crappy low-tech solace bubble: trying to solve crossword puzzles while getting melodramatically worked up over a stranger’s habits.
Man … I’m going to be in subway commute heaven when the intra-ocular Google View-Field implants arrive.
Oh and get off my goddamned lawn.