Making my way through Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors I came across the prose poem called "Virus."* In it, the protagonist gets hooked on a video game. He spends more and more time playing, neglecting everything else in his life. I actually chuckled. It reminded me of my sons and their single-minded focus on beating the next level or the "big boss," postponing meals until they can pause whatever game they're playing. The poem was a familiar, yet extreme, interpretation of the gamer's mindset. I laughed and put it out of my head. Until I was walking home from campus one day and watched as a driver talking on a cell phone made a left-hand turn from the middle lane while the light was red. That's when I realized the gaming obsession in the poem only gives us a tiny glimpse at a much bigger problem--our escalating obsession with technology.
I expect this is going to end up sounding like a rant against technology. It's not that I hate technology. I don't. I own a computer. I love my computer. I built it myself from tenderly chosen components that were then delicately installed to create the perfect system, catering to my own wants. In fact, I like my computer so much I won't share it. So we have three desktop systems, one apiece for my sons, and one for me. And four laptops. That seems a bit excessive, but really it's no worse than the desktops. One laptop has died but is lovingly preserved by the previous owner. One works as long as it's sitting on a cooling pad--until its old bones get tired and it trundles off to sleep with its figurative thumb in its mouth. The third laptop has been wiped of the last owner's files and now lives inside a cupboard. Why? It's not mine anymore so I don't know. The last laptop IS mine (it's shiny! and red!) and it goes with me anywhere that I might need it for taking notes or writing or sharing lurid videos with fellow students. Carpal tunnel syndrome has disabled my hands to the point where I can no longer hold a pen for more than a few minutes, so the laptop has become like an extension of my arm. I know that's no excuse for my co-dependency but it's certainly a reason.
I keep thinking about surgery to help my hands, but that just reminds me how doctor offices contribute to (and count on) our obsession with technology. When was the last time you talked on the phone to someone in a doctor's office, other than to make an appointment? I'm betting you can't remember because these days, you have to "leave your name, number and a detailed message, and we'll get back to you as soon as possible." That's nice. I appreciate the sentiment. I'm glad you'll get back to me. But why can't I talk to someone now? What if I'm not home when you call? Then you'll have to leave a message, and I'll have to call back and leave another message, and then maybe I won't be home when you answer that message -- Wait. What? You want me to leave my cell phone number? Umm, sorry. Only my family has my cell number. That way, if the phone rings or I get a text message, I know it's either one of my children with a question more vital than "What's for dinner?" or it's my cell phone provider. (TracPhone is terrified I'm going to miss out on a deal that will give me more minutes than I'll ever use before the Earth falls into the sun so I get two emails along with the text message. But that's another rant.)
Since when did we need to be accessible by phone at every moment of the day or night? When did cell phones go from being something people carried in case of emergency to a physical implant (think Bluetooth)? Back in the day, if someone wasn't home when you called, you kept calling until they were home. After a few decades of missed calls, answering machines made it possible to leave a message if the matter was urgent. If you weren't home when they called back, THEY left a message. You could end up playing Phone Tag for a while if both people led busy lives, but you eventually connected up and got your business done. Today there's an expectation that everyone has a cell phone, they will provide the number to anyone they brush against in life, and when it rings, they'll answer it no matter where they are or what they're doing. I no longer can be sure whether the woman in the bathroom stall next to me is talking to me, talking to herself, or on the phone. WHY would anyone talk to someone else on the phone while they pee? Would it be considered more rude to refrain from answering until the job is done? Not in my zip code, it wouldn't!
This is our own fault, you know. We (the societal "we") keep demanding technology that does more than what it was originally designed to do. I want my phone to make calls. That's it! I want my computer to surf the web. That's it! I don't want to surf the net on my phone, or make calls on my computer. I like knowing that when I pick up my phone, I won't have to wonder what I was planning to do with it. (Yeah, my memory is getting that bad, so shut up.) Granted, cell phones are extremely portable, but they're also very small and thus also extremely hard for some people with bad eyesight (raises hand) to see the images, not to mention much easier to lose or damage. If the camera in your phone breaks, what do you do? You don't get it fixed: you buy another phone. The phone company loves this, which is why these days, phones take pictures and videos, send email, surf the internet, allow you to read books on the screen, and are probably in development to cook, clean and wipe your ass. This used to be known as "putting all your eggs in one basket." Planned obsolescence is all about more money for the technology companies and less for us. Which is why I still use TracPhone. If my phone breaks or I lose it, all I've lost is a phone. And I can always make calls with my computer if I have to.
Marybeth Cieplinski is what colleges euphemistically call a "non-traditional student," meaning she's next to older than dirt and still hasn't finished her BA. That will hopefully happen in either December or next May, depending on what she can do about the one lit class they just cancelled for fall. Her plans include writing a scholarly investigation of Zorro and actually getting her grad school portfolio together before the deadline. She loves to write about almost anything but doesn't know when to stop.
*If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. I wrote my own blog post about "Virus."