Part I: Apocalypse Now
It is the dawn of the robot-apocalypse. In the early hours, just as the sun creeps over the horizon, the doomsday sequence initiates. Humankind slowly stirs from peaceful slumber, unaware that their dishwashers, refrigerators, and televisions sent the code for the self-driving cars to activate. The cars plow though the walls of homes catapulting the inhabitants out of bed, flushing them outside and into the streets searching for help. Help doesn’t come. Instead, a cloud of drones so dense that it obscures the mighty sun itself descends upon the masses. People scatter to no avail. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they are mercilessly pecked apart before breakfast time.
Some stagger to safety, only to be eliminated by incendiary devices hidden in their phones triggered by the master computer from a satellite high above Earth. In the confusion, the few survivors scatter for shelter, only to run directly into the arms of legions of cyborgs-in-waiting, expecting the humans, based on detailed data and algorithms culled from their every move on the Internet. They know the next move before humans do. The few survivors live out their lives in fear, like the humans from Planet of the Apes. Hiding is useless and running is futile. It is the end of the world as we know it.
It sounds like a movie plot (Spielberg, call me!) but it could happen. If it did, there would be a sort of poetic justice to it all. (I also realize I made four movie references, but they’re from the 1960s, and if Rabbi Orlofsky can get away with it, why can’t I?)
I’m just going to dive in; even if it’s not the robot apocalypse, we have a problem. We have a technology problem.
I like technology but there is a limit, and I think we are reaching it. Tech is wonderful; I support open-heart surgery, I use ballpoint pens, I enjoy a rousing game of Pac-Man, I am the beneficiary of anti-lock brakes, and I’ll likely never, ever have to read a map again for as long as I live, thanks to GPS. Not to ramble on about how much I miss phone booths, tape decks, and shopping lists, but I miss when times were simpler. I won’t wax on and on about how things were better and more innocent when I was a kid in 1989, even if it was a sweet time to be alive (Vanilla Ice!).
Instead, I’ll talk about 2003. Remember? Phones just made phone calls. We asked people tentatively if it was okay to call them on their cell phones, and we kept two hands on the wheel when we drove. We didn’t check the tracking of our Amazon deliveries six times a day or needlessly text or tweet or WhatsApp while seated across the table from our family.
In 2003, we didn’t stare at our phone as we walked down the street with our kids, or all but ignore them at the park even while we pushed them on the swing because we had to see the newsfeed or respond to a snarky comment on our group chat. We didn’t fill every second of our commutes or break time with Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu.
Being alive in 2003 meant not having to snap eight pictures of everything we ate. We enjoyed whatever events we were at, instead of watching them through a five-inch screen. We kept our thoughts to ourselves instead of tweeting them. When we wanted to catch up with a friend or meet someone new, we spoke to them instead of scanning their profile on Facebook. We kept old, outdated pictures of our kids stuffed deep in our wallets instead of posting them for the world to see at sickening rates.
Social psychologist Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, discovered in his research that, since 2007 (the year the first iPhone came out), the amount of our personal time spent in front of screens has skyrocketed to where we now spend roughly over 85% of this time in front of screens rather than interacting with people or pursuing personal interests. Most people are not particularly proud of this or even particularly enjoy this arrangement, but it’s hard to break free.
Our kids – the muses of picture after picture from vacations, birthdays, graduations (whom we profess to live for) – why aren’t we spending more time with them? Why are we so invested in recording the memories rather than authentically creating them? Why are kids left to wither beside their parents in the back seats of cars, on grocery lines, on buses, and at meals with screens to keep them company, not people? Why do we openly give them an out from talking to us and the means for allowing them to regularly (and often involuntarily) stay up past three or four in the morning?
Wake up! When did we start ignoring our families so much? When did we forget how to be parents? How did we stop being the people we were just ten years ago? Life was not perfect in 1989 or 2003, but it wasn’t this. There was TV, there were other distractions, and kids found plenty of ways to avoid their parents and vice versa, but in those days we had more stopping cues – signals for us to move to the next activity, like commercial breaks, the end of a book, or dinnertime. Today, eye contact is becoming a rarity.
This is not the success story we hoped for when we gleefully unboxed the first iPhone just 11 years ago. We underestimated what Silicon Valley had in store for us, and failed to realize how valuable our digital footprint could be to those who would learn how to manipulate us into marketable data.
This is an inconvenient truth, this idea that we have leveraged our lives in exchange for short bursts of hollow comfort. It is a truth that has slowly been sneaking up on us like an anaconda. We all need to wake up. We have to realize that we are fighting a losing battle with technology that is too irresistible to put down. We need to be honest with ourselves about how it affects us, and make a plan so that we coexist in the best possible way. We need to do it fast. There probably won’t be a robot apocalypse any time soon, but I think we’re destroying ourselves just fine without one.
I challenge the readers to go two days without a phone and to take note of the effects – good and bad – that it has on you. If you don’t enjoy life away from your phone, it will be that much harder to put it down.
Next week, in part two of this article, I’ll tell a partial history of my experience with technology, what my family is doing do break free, and how we enjoy a more meaningful life together because of it. Feel free to contact me – I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.
Simcha Loiterman is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations or a cup of coffee and a good talk. He would love to hear from you at email@example.com. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone because we all have stories to tell, lessons to teach, and can kindle a spark of goodness inside. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in “Life.” Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.