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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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Staying Out of the Race

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced Tuesday that he will not be running for president, and it took us quite by surprise. It had never occurred to us that Portman might run, after all, and none of the many pundits handicapping the upcoming field seem to have considered the possibility. The announcement served its purpose of reminding America that there is a Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, however, and might even have led some to conclude that Portman is an important person.
Being in desperate need of some some self-aggrandizing publicity ourselves, and lacking anything else to write about on a slow news day, we have decided to follow Portman’s lead and announce that we are also not going to run for president. This will come as a bitter disappointment to the multitudes of Americans who have looked to us for hope in these dark times, and we cannot deny the alarming possibility that it might result in someone even worse winning the office, but we think it is for the best.
Longstanding political tradition requires a non-candidate to say that he has discussed the decision with his wife and children, but we are single and childless so we talked it over with the regulars at Kirby’s Beer Store. They were fine with it. Another longstanding tradition requires a non-candidate to explain his reasons for not running, and lest the public think that we are selfishly shirking our patriotic duty by declining our shot at the office will we oblige.
We would like to say that we are prevented from running by our ongoing sex scandals, but we have embarrassingly little to confess about that lately. Certainly nothing that would raise an eyebrow at a Georgetown cocktail party. Some might question our other numerous vices, our lack of any notable achievements in life, and our general low moral character, but recent history indicates that the general public isn’t so nit-picky about such things. The fault lies not in ourselves, contrary to Shakespeare, but rather in the stars.
There would be difficulty in raising the necessary funds, for one thing. Most of our friends are as destitute as us, and our campaign pledge to let businesses fight it out in the free markets of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism is unlikely to appeal to any of the big-money donors. The Koch brothers might go for it, and one of them lives right here in town, but we don’t want to get cast in any of the crazy conspiracy theories they inspire. Prime-time network ad buys and styrofoam Greek columns don’t come cheap, so the cost of a modern presidential campaign is simply beyond our means for the foreseeable future.
Modern presidential campaigns seem to involve a lot of social media, as well, and we have little aptitude and less enthusiasm for that nonsense. Even such a taciturn statesman as President Calvin Coolidge could not compress his policies into a “tweet,” and we are no Silent Cal. Nor do we care to schmooze with smarmy comedians on the late night comedy shows that are now an obligatory stop on the modern presidential campaign trail, especially in this day and age when we’re unlikely to be sharing the couch with Charo. Hair stylists and fashion consultants and focus groups and the rest of the indignities of the modern presidential campaign are also irksome to us. We rather like the idea of eating hot dogs at state fairs and speaking from the back of railroad cars and engaging in heated but civil debates with our opponents, and we wouldn’t even mind a reasonable amount of baby-kissing so long as the little bastards have been properly cleaned, but we fear our candidacy must await a return to those halcyon days of old-fashioned politics.
Not that the job of president doesn’t tempt us, especially now that its powers have been so vastly expanded. The idea of being able to get on airplane without taking our shoes off is appealing, presidents seem to eat well, it would be nice to have someone take an interest in our college basketball tournament predictions, and although we don’t play golf the rest of the perquisites of the job seem ample compensation for its responsibilities. There’s always a chance one can do some good for the country, as well, but we expect the public might less appreciative of our efforts to stop doing things to them rather than attempting to do things for them.
If a draft movement continues to gain momentum we might be forced to reconsider, but for now we will keep our hat outside the ring. It’s a fine old hat, and we don’t want it soiled.

— Bud Norman

Pretty Safe in a Messy World

The world might seem dangerously out of control at the moment, what with Islamist terror gangs slaughtering people across a wide swath of Iraq and Syria and enjoying the swimming pool at the abandoned American embassy in Libya, along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats of nuclear weapons, and the nuts running Iran in the process of getting their own bombs, not to mention the suddenly assertive Chinese and all the other crises popping up around the globe, but the President of the United States assures us this is all quite normal. Speaking to yet another group of rich people at yet another high-dollar fund-raiser recently, the president assessed that we’re actually “pretty safe.
This is not as reassuring an assessment at the president probably intended, but it’s probably the best one can hope for these days. Still, after paying $32,400 per plate the audience had every right to expect the famously silver-tongued orator to provide a more convincing case for even that rather modest boast.

“The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy,” the president said, which is true enough, and rather generous in its implied acknowledgement that this was so even before the George W. Bush administration, but he added that, “In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through,” which is altogether wrong and quite strikingly stupid. Perhaps the president has only recently noticed the messiness of the world because of the “tweets” and Facebook postings that pop up on his cell phone, such as those hash-tagged missives his wife once sent out about the Boko Haram terror gang that is still running amok in Nigeria, but almost anyone old enough to have been aware of the world’s imperfections even before the invention of these new media can easily judge that the world is conspicuously messier lately. Islamist terror gangs controlling huge swaths of resource-rich countries is not a routine feature of history, invasions of European countries by other countries is a problem that had largely been eliminated by the post-war world order once imposed by American power, the various other crises are more numerous than usual, and all of this would be impossible to ignore even the good old days when three networks and a couple of newspapers got to decide what people knew.
It’s not so dangerous as the Cold War days, the president explained to his well-heeled friends, and it’s true that at least for the moment none of those Islamist terror gangs have a stockpile of nuclear atop intercontinental missiles. Iran’s working to get one during the seemingly eternal negotiations that the administration is so proud of, however, and Russia and China already have plenty and are clearly intent on expanding their territories. The president also believes that the Cold War was won “because the world stood as one,” as he put it to those gullible Germans who gathered to hear his highfalutin speech at the former Berlin Wall back in ’08 when people everywhere were believing such nonsense, so it’s hard to have confidence in his ability to handle the current challenge.
The president also told his friends that America’s military is preeminent in the world, which is true for the moment, but when the planned downsizing is complete and our enemies continue to beef up their defense budgets with the interest payments on the national debt or the oil fields they’ve seized from our former allies the advantage won’t be nearly so overwhelming. All that military might doesn’t mean much without a credible threat of its use, too, and the country’s enemies are all tweeting one another that it’s now a post-American world.
There are more alarmed voices in the administration, including those of the Defense Secretary and the Attorney General and the unnamed sources for a spate of old-fashioned news media stories about the possibility for another large-scale terror attack sneaking across the porous southern border some time soon, and the president seems content to know that they’re on the job with all those intelligence and national securities that his hated predecessor put in place. The harsh interrogations and Guantanamo Bay detentions and some of the other ideas are gone, which might explain the downgrade to “pretty safe,” but we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.

— Bud Norman