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Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

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The Brave New Wi Fi World

Most of Tuesday was spent on a trek into deepest Oklahoma, where we had a long overdue reunion with some beloved kinfolk, and when we returned the top story on The Drudge Report was about a big drop in the stock price of the Apple computer company. This seemed odd, as the entire’s day journey had suggested that all the big computer companies and the Apple one in particular should be booming.
We were accompanied on our trek by our pa, ma, and older brother, all of whom are, like most people of our acquaintance, by now utterly dependent on electronic gizmos. The folk’s fancy car would offer step-by-step instructions in a soothingly artificial yet unmistakably female voice along every mile, with a video display on the dashboard showing a cartographical rendering of our progress, which mostly was a straight line of Interstate-35 inching along across an occasional bridge or traffic loop, complete with the miles left and other information that could have easily been obtained by the mile markers and a lifelong familiarity with the same straight stretch of Interstate-35, and then it provided the instructions for the turn at the Frontier City amusement park and the two other turns that led us to our destination, information that was once written down during a telephone conversation with the visited kinfolk, yet the soothing voice and the animated map are now somehow essential. Along the way several telephone conversations were conducted, reminding of us a simpler era when one of the the subtle joys of that straight stretch of Interstate 35 was the lack of telephone conversation, and we noted at all three of these telecommunication thingamajigs had that familiar bitten apple symbol on them, and that much of the none telephonic conversation was about the various “apps” and other magical powers of these mystical devices, which apparently can no do everything from monitoring one’s sleep patterns to letting nosy friends know where one is at any moment of the day, and although we always know when we haven’t had a good night’s sleep and would actually prefer an occasional moment of privacy apparently these services are now also essential.
The highway was also dotted with some remaining old-fashion non-electronic billboards that advertised the benefits of the roadside lodging, and of course all but the seediest of them promised “wi fi.” This got us to wondering where that now-ubiquitous neologism came from, as we assumed that “wi” stands for “wireless” and the “fi” stands for fidelity, as high-fidelity sound equipment, or what the oldsters still remember as “hi fi,” but we couldn’t figure out what the “fi” in “wi fi” was being faithful to, so pa asked the question of his magical device with the half-bitten apple on it, and in a soothing voice he was asked to repeat, as even the most miraculous technologies can be stymied by an Oklahoma accent, and the machine explained that the name was just something the inventors came up with. We had long noticed that these machines now routinely settle all sorts of arguments, usually more definitively, about everything from baseball statistics to the reliability of some crooked politician according some crooked “fact-checking” department at some crooked newspaper, and we expect it will soon deliver the meaning of life.
In the meantime, it’s making life a lot harder from dramatists and screenwriters and anyone else who hopes to cook up a rip-roaring story. The beginning of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” begins with the boozy wife quoting some line of Bette Davis dialogue and demanding that her boozy husband remember what movie it came from, and she’s annoyed when he says he doesn’t know, and it sets off all the ensuing boozy rancor between these very unhappily married boozers, but today he’d just get out his machine and ask the question and it would quickly be answered in a soothing voice and suddenly you’ve lost even the play’s vague semblance of a plot. A friend of ours once wrote a popular novel that was made into a movement, and he tells us that when they re-set his story from the early ’70s to the modern day they were obliged to write in a scene where the protagonist’s cell phone is disabled, and since the novel and movie were both titled “The Ice Harvest” and took place during an ice storm it was just a simple matter of having him slip on the ice, but without that touch the plot would have dissolved somewhere along the numerous plot points where he could have made a simple call or sent a text message and been easily rescued from situations that took more ingenuity back in the ’70s.
With life so thoroughly transformed by these whatchamacallits, there’s no obvious reason for a slide in their stocks. There are always the ever-greater expectations that won’t be met in the occasional quarter, and there’s something in the story Drudge linked about unexpected competition in China, which apparently is becoming as dependent on the things as Americans, which we hope won’t facilitate another Cultural Revolution if China’s own slumping stock market requires a return to Maoist totalitarianism, but our view so far away from Wall Street is that the companies are going to continue to grow and get rich and that a few more in places such as China will as well. If the stock continues to slide, people will be making the trades on the palms of their hands and wouldn’t know how to do otherwise, and the machines can starting acting that “Hal” computer who took over the ship in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and starting saying, in a very soothing voice, “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t let you do that.”

— Bud Norman