Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Phoning It In

By cracky, sometimes it’s hard to believe that I will soon be 55 years old, that I even made it this far… many others in my life weren’t so lucky. Nothing spikes me in time like the technology that we now take for granted as integral to our daily lives. I love the idea that we can communicate and ponder and research and discover almost anything imaginable. We are a digital, mostly-wireless nation that has learned to harness information technology and wring its neck to give us what we crave: knowledge and (mostly) understanding.

Web Definition: Luddite -- 1. A Luddite is a person who dislikes technology, especially technological devices that threaten existing jobs or interfere with personal privacy. 2. A Luddite is someone who is incompetent when using new technology.

I have often joked that I am a Luddite when it comes to hand-held technology like i-phones, i-pads and all the neat-o whizzy devices that are everywhere. Making this statement may seem a bit hypocritical, seeing as how I’m banging away on this keyboard and looking at my color screen while listening to Pandora Radio streaming Grand Funk Railroad.

Having said that, I have serious issues with a wave of digital servitude that is overtaking us at a pace that no one could have foreseen. That debbil is the reason so many people walk and sit and drive and eat and drink and otherwise operate daily with their heads down, looking at the little screen held in their hands. You know what I’m talking about.

Drive along any street and you’ll see otherwise intelligent folks staring down intently at their devices, tapping and sliding their fingers on the little screen, oblivious to their surroundings while strolling on the sidewalk, crossing the street or just being stationary. They’ll likely also have at least one, if not both ears filled with hi-fi ear buds, further insulating themselves. Their consciousness has been reduced to the little screen they hold, their fingertips dancing away.

It’s the same in parking lots, at the mall, in grocery stores, at the movies… literally everywhere, people are tuning out anything that isn’t on the little screen in their hands. It doesn’t matter where they are, because the screen dominates… the screen tells all… the screen is the new reality. It beckons with amazing color and graphics and games and access and information retrieval of the type never dreamed of until now. My fear is that the price being paid -- the cost of not paying attention -- is happening without anyone seeming to notice or care.

Don’t EVEN get me started about using mobile phones while driving.

There’s a teevee commercial for a company whose name rhymes with 'horizon' that features a lovely young thing who leaves her apartment and commences to walking around her town, all while staring down at her little screen, never once looking up to see where the hell she’s going. Every time that commercial comes on, I’m reminded that everyone near that young woman is now responsible for her well-being and safety, because she is totally oblivious to her surroundings… at least, that’s how it appears. She’s not looking out for cars or making sure she’s not gonna fall into a manhole or off the curb. She’s not watching for an errant cyclist or anyone walking directly at her. She’s not paying attention to anything except the little screen in her hands.

I partly blame our national addiction to video games… we were entranced as kids, and as adults we are addicted to the amazing technology in our smart phones and pads. Sorry, but that’s how I see it. It’s simply too easy to drop into that little screen for work, games, videos, porn, Twatter, Fleecebook or whatever is beckoning our short attention span. My gosh, Congress is gonna allow hand-held devices 'in session' for the first time. What… the stuff going on in there isn’t important enough for them to pay attention? They didn’t get enough Fleshbot in their office before session?

But the lack of awareness, of situational aptitude, is only part of my concern… do I sound like Grampa Simpson, yelling at clouds? The other important aspect of this hand-help PC phenomenon is the seeming ease with which one can find out almost anything, locate any place, confirm any fact… simply by fingering that little screen. It’s not the access that troubles me, because I use the intratubes every day in my work. It’s the concept of knowing HOW to find out information, HOW to figure out the process by which information is retrieved, HOW to go about collecting that data in a meaningful way and gleaning out the answers.

A blogger that I follow is a college professor who gives his students a test in thinking beyond the little screen:

"There is an activity I like to do in class from time to time in which I force students to turn off their spacephones and laptops and, as a group, accomplish some basic tasks and answer a few questions without the benefit of mobile electronics. I call it "A Trip Back in Time to 1993" (I'm sure the odd laptop could be spotted on campus back then, albeit without wifi). Since we can't leave the classroom and start running around campus, I ask them to formulate a plan to accomplish these tasks.

I present them with some very simple if somewhat random questions. What are the last 5 bills that came up for a floor vote in the House? Which president signed the Posse Comitatus Act? Give me directions from campus to Washington DC. What is the weather in Moscow today? Is the Supreme Court hearing oral arguments today, and if so, what case? Stuff like that. Nothing complicated.

The answer in 2010 is simple and identical for every question – whip out the wireless internet device of choice and ask Mr. Google (although as an aside, many of them seem unable to get that far. If I get one more email along the lines of "How do I find sources for…" I am going to adopt a needy child and throw pies at it. But I digress.) Problem solved. Without those devices they are quite helpless. I am a bad person for enjoying it, but I legitimately get a kick out of seeing them try to figure out how we Neanderthals managed to uncover these kinds of secrets just 10 or 15 years ago. We didn't have instantaneous access to everything yet somehow we survived.

Roll Call or Congressional Quarterly would bring us lists of bills in the House (lagging a few days, of course, to accommodate publishing things on a dead tree). Encyclopedia Britannica revealed who signed which bills into law. Rand McNally gave us directions. All three of those required a trip to the library. The weather and Supreme Court questions required picking up the phone and calling someone to get the information quickly or waiting a few days to get it from secondary sources."

When was the last time you were in a library? Do you remember how to use the Dewey Decimal System? Good for you! Naturally, even libraries must utilize digital technology because, well… just because. It isn’t really necessary, it’s just easier to locate a book on the screen than in a card catalog, and it’s a good use of the most basic digital technology. But think about it: if all the information you could want is accessible from where you sit at this exact moment, what would you need a library for? Why would you ever even go into one to find, you know… a book? To read? Why research a subject that requires sitting down and reading pages and pages of printed text when you can just Google the question and get 270,000 answers in less than .025 seconds?

Catch my drift here?

Last summer, my delicious wife changed my life when she bought me an i-pod Shuffle, my first 100% digital music device, a small shiny bit o’metal and silicon that has radically changed my personal listening dynamic. I think she really bought it because she was embarrassed to see me working in the front yard with my ancient Discman slapping on my hip. Anyways, I was able to upload 4 gigs of music from my CD collection, over 40 of my favorite CDs. My friends ask why I didn’t just download the music for free, or at least for a small fee per song/release, instead of taking the time to dump all those discs into my i-tunes file and synch the i-pod. What am I, stupid?

Here’s why: I don’t buy into the concept of downloading individual songs from the intratubes, whether for a fee or for free, for two very specific reasons. First, the majority of people I know get their digital music for free on de web, which totally cheats the artist from getting paid for their work. Even the fee-based downloads pay a paltry amount of royalties to the artist, far less that they receive from the sale of a hard disc. As usual, the creatives gets the shaft in the whole commercial music thingie, and thus has it always been. Perhaps being married to an artist gives me a unique perspective on this, I dunno.

The second reason is more about me… when I buy a CD by an artist, I am buying a vision they assembled for their muse, their career, and for my enjoyment. I listen to ALL the songs on a CD and, while not every song is great or even good, I still get a solid view of the artist’s vision. If I download a single song without hearing the entire release, I’m cheating myself out of exposure to music that might actually be better than the single release, or whatever track is being pushed by the label. Those unheralded songs also give me additional insight towards the artist’s reason for recording the thing. Ask around… I’ll bet that over 90% of those you know who listen to digital music NEVER download an entire release and only buy/steal a couple of tracks from any given release, tops. For me, some of my favorite songs are not the hits, but are instead the hidden gems deep in the track listing.

Now do you get it? I do the work, listen to the whole release, benefit from the artist’s efforts and enjoy all of it, not just a small slice. The slice is only a taste, the entire release is the whole enchilada, and I had to work for it to appreciate the body of work. I like making and eating enchiladas, comprende? And so it is with the hand-held PC... er, smart phone.

By not learning how to ‘do the work’ (which the little screen does for them), a person is not learning the process of learning. They are just getting the answers. One of my teachers in junior high had a perfect analogy for what she called ‘cheating your education’ that I will never forget. She used to tell us ‘I can buy you a hamburger, but I can’t eat it for you. You have to eat the hamburger yourself to get anything out of it.’ The major flaw in our modern public educational system is that we are teaching to the test, but not teaching analytical skills, the ability to process information to find the answers, to DO THE WORK.

Ya… I know. I sound like a Luddite, but really, I’m not. I too crave all that the ‘information superhighway’ has to offer but, as on any highway, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing or you’ll wind up in a ditch. If you’re walking around in a parking lot at Wal-Mart with your face glued to that little screen, eventually you’re gonna get run over by an SUV whose driver was not watching where you were walking, even though you weren’t watching either. Whose fault will that be?

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: pay attention to life around you, beyond the screen. Don’t fill every free second with that little screen as the center of your world. Use it as needed, especially if your job demands it, but be aware that it is not a mandatory aspect of your life. Every so often, stash the device and walk outside and see the traffic and watch the birds and breathe the air and smile at that cute guy/gal whose eye you just caught. Go to the library and, just for fun, pick a topic that you are interested in and do some research on it. Burn-in some new synapses, forge some new paths for your brain to work in.

If you find yourself in a coffee shop or the DMV or waiting for someone at the airport, don't do the easy thing and bury your eyes into the little screen. Keep it stowed and do something novel, like talking to the person next to you (unless, of course, they are already head-down into their own little screen). Connect with another human being on a verbal level. Listen to an old codger (like me, heh heh heh) tell a story about his shoes. Really, it's the best part of life, this communication thing. It's what we humans do best and, with that little screen, worst as well.


Just so you know, my personal mobile device is an ancient (4 years old) cell unit with no camera, no mobile internet access and no touch-screen. All I want it to do is make and take phone calls… I don’t even use it for texting. That’s the way I like it. Am I a Luddite? I would say not so much, but others may differ, and that’s OK with me. However, if you're one of those who walk around, head down, staring at the little screen, oblivious to the cars and people and everything around you, well... what do you think?

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