I feel very strongly that technology can have a positive impact on our lives, and I need look no further than my profoundly deaf son, who can now hear thanks to a pair of cochlear implants, as proof. But too often, technology is used poorly if not incorrectly, and the immature ways in which we allow technology to dominate our lives is a societal issue that needs to be addressed.
Alas, this has been happening for a long time.
In 1985, I spent the summer after I graduated from high school working for a tiny construction company. My boss had what was, back then, an incredibly rare piece of technology—a car phone. As I was driving around in his truck one day, it rang, so I picked it up. (It was my boss. He said: “Why did you answer my phone?”) And I recall getting interested stares from riders in other cars. Drug dealer or doctor, they seemed to wonder. (Based on my appearance, the former was more probable.)
Years later, I got married and moved to an apartment in an upscale Boston suburb that’s home to many doctors and lawyers. (I must have helped the town meet some minimum income requirement.) Driving behind one resident on the way to work in the early 1990s, I had another phone/car first: The car in front of me was swerving repeatedly over the yellow line. Figuring he was drunk, I started beeping and flashing my lights, and I was eventually able to pull up alongside him. It was a doctor talking on an early cell phone, something I had never witnessed before. I told him he’d almost hit several oncoming cars and sped off with his disbelieving face burned in my memory.
Such events are of course commonplace today, and it’s unclear whether anything is more distracting to drivers than their phones. But that first run-in with a cell phone–wielding lunatic never left me, and when a friend called me from his first cell phone years later, I asked where he was calling from and when he told me he was driving I hung up on him.
In more recent years, we’ve all seen people immersed in their smartphone screens, walking into poles, people, and other objects. But even before these tiny mobile computers became all the rage, even before the white ear buds started popping on iPod-toting dullards, people were ignoring what I take to be an implicit social contract when using their phones. There were the Nextel push-to-talk phones that let you turn a sophisticated digital device into a World War II–era field phone and let everyone in the caller’s area get in on the conversation. These phones would utter a loud chirping sound to precede each part of the call, and everyone around the caller could hear both parts of the conversation because it occurred in speakerphone style. Thanks for sharing.
As recently as last night, before a flight to Seattle, I witnessed for the first time the modern version of this clueless behavior, as two 20-something girls proceeded to have a very loud FaceTime conversation with a houseful of people back home using an iPhone. They excitedly blathered about nothing to the people they’d just left, and the phone on the other end was handed in turn to each person there, much to shock of everyone else in the waiting area. It was the perfect example of technology abuse—two people absolutely oblivious to the needs of those around them, and it lasted a good 20 minutes. Or as I would describe it, an eternity.
Anyone who spends any time at all on public transportation or planes knows what I’m talking about. The little kid who’s allowed the play some iPad game, without headphones, at full volume in the seat in front of you. The people who play music or, increasingly, YouTube videos on their phones, also without headphones and often to the point where the volume is so high it actually distorts the sound, while everyone around them inches away when possible or looks on with disbelief.
A few years back, I was visiting Washington, DC, with friends. They have a young daughter and the three of them are as immersed in tech gadgets as you can be. The couple both have iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Airs, and the kid gets all the hand-me-downs and is thus always demanding new entertainment. Waiting for them outside the White House where they had gone on a tour, I watched a large group of people exiting and staring at their surroundings in wonder, as is normal. But not my friends: They exited this historic building with their faces glued to tiny screens. I was embarrassed for them, in a way. But mostly I just felt bad that they couldn’t take a few minutes to take in the outside of the White House on their way out. Angry Birds, or Twitter, or whatever can wait. This was likely the only time any of them would ever visit this place.
I’m not immune to the silliness, of course. I post pictures of food on Facebook with the best of them and justify it by explaining that I only do so for truly special meals, of which I’ve apparently had quite a few. But in many ways, I’m ahead of the curve. As I write this, people are just purchasing their first smartphone, their first tablet, or maybe even their first hybrid Windows device. And they’re experiencing that weird bond, or misguided love, that makes that device not just an important part of their life, but part of their being and self-worth. I went through that temporary condition years ago, and now I have a very different problem: I’m awash in these devices and they’re more of a responsibility than a life-altering newness. They’re work.
And this gives me, perhaps, a unique perspective. When people argue about esoteric tech topics related to mobile devices—such as whether Windows Phone has “enough apps” or even “enough of the right apps”—it makes me realize that we’re just treading water. None of this stuff is particularly important, and all of it is temporary. In a few years, we’ll be debating whether offices, restaurants, and bars have the right to ban wearable technology. And then we’ll move on to implants. Windows Phone?
The bigger issues, however, are timeless. And I think we need to spend more time worrying about how we allow technology to run our lives, rather than the reverse. And to really address why we are so absolutely selfish toward others when we do so. I’m not saying that I’m wishing for a global electromagnetic pulse (EMP) catastrophe that would render all these devices unusable. But I am looking forward to a time when we can all mature in our use of technology, stop starting at tiny screens, awash in useless information, and start enjoying the world and the people around us more.