March 28, 2020
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Unsmarting Yourself

With the same old idiots using it, smart tech doesn’t do too much

Unsmarting Yourself
Illustration by Saahil
Unsmarting Yourself

A lady told me long ago of the one virtue cellphones had in her eyes: “You see fewer men walking along the road with one hand picking the nose and the other scratching the crotch.”

Then came Bluetooth, and whither it has gone who knows? For these are days when technological innovations no longer last even the 18 months referred to by Moore’s Law. Yes, the technology is getting better and ‘better’, and will soon leave us behind. For the innovators all seem to forget that, however clever the application, it’s the same old idiots who’re using it.

The fault of course is not in the technology. It’s too easy to blame inanimate things: big dams, nuclear power plants, cellphone towers. Razing them all to the ground would change nothing. As a race, we managed pretty well for centuries to destroy ourselves and everything else on this fragile, blue-green planet with metal spears and axes, and for millennia before that with stone and bone. Just as we’ve educated ourselves up (or down) to a certain level of foolishness with regard to money and ideologies, we are doing the same with technology. What we need is more silence; but we fill that up with mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter.

From a utilitarian point of view, there’s something to be said for mobile phones. They help people get information, which is sometimes vital—say, to farmers and students and people threatened by cyclones. In the cities, though, they have become merely another toy to kill contemplation. Besides, they—like e-mail—make it easier to lie and to make excuses.

Luxuries that are too easily available make us forget our real needs. We need silence, but we fill it up with FB.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, I detest the things. They’re always ringing in the middle of a conversation. That reminds me of one of Dave Berg’s The Lighter Side Of... strips in Mad magazine. This girl and boy are necking when suddenly the phone rings. “Excuse me,” says the girl, and turns to answer it, and says into the phone, “Oh, Howard, I was just thinking about you!” I feel just like the poor boy every time.

The Chinese are thinking about special lanes on their city pavements for mobile users. We’ve all seen these young people texting or calling furiously when they get a chance. What happens if these Chinese mobile users bump into each other in their special lane? I suppose that, in the language of the Pentagon, would be ‘collateral damage’.

There are several dozen sci-fi visions of what might happen if we close ourselves into a technology-bound world. Engineers are speaking in glowing terms of a house where everything can be done with a remote in your hand, as if it were something wonderful. Where would the fun be in that? I like getting up to look up something in the encyclopaedia or to make myself a cup of coffee. One sci-fi story takes this vision to a point where people never meet each other anymore. Even making love can be done virtually. And since these machines have passed the Turing test long ago, you never know whether you are speaking with a real person or a simulacrum.

Luxuries that are too easily available make us forget our real needs. ‘More phones than toilets’ is not just a figure of speech. See how phone manufacturers shamelessly pander to our base instincts. Phone envy is not very different from penis envy, is it? Everything—the commercials, the product, the applications—seems designed to make us not think. We’re becoming social autists, and no one seems to mind.

I did think I would be able to write more lightly, laughingly, about mobile phones. Having been at an engineering college myself, where I learned an abiding respect for first principles, I abhor technology without good uses, which pretends to simplify life while complicating it. If you think life was tougher before the mobile phone came along, you may be right. But ah, little darling, it was so much less fettered!

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