Sunday, November 17, 2019

Atomization Chronicles

     Most of what I write, whether it’s fiction or op-ed, is powered by a worry. I’ve got a lot of them, and they surge to the front of my consciousness as and when they – not I – please. It’s probably just an aspect of being old. The old typically do more worrying than the young. Our greater experience militates toward it.

     “Why should extensive experience conduce to worry?” I hear you ask. There are many reasons, of which three stand out from the rest. First, we know how many more ways there are for things to go wrong than right. Second, we’ve seen wishful thinking in operation for long enough to know its power. And third, we know the seductive power of evil.

     Aha! I caught you glancing up at the title of this piece. No, this isn’t a “rumination.” It’s a condemnation of a supposed technological advance, for which my former occupation is responsible. That “advance” has proved so pernicious that it verges on making me wish that the trade I plied for five decades, which brought me fame, fortune, and a great deal of personal satisfaction, had never existed.

     Perhaps you already know where I’m going with this and are disinclined to follow it further. If so, feel free to leave off and turn to the comics page, because I’m about to set out on a Jeremiad.

     I’ve railed about the phenomenon of “absent presence” frequently enough in the past that Gentle Readers of long standing will already be familiar with my sentiments about it. It was bad twenty years ago. It’s approaching fatal dimensions today. The symptoms are visible to all who are willing not merely to look but to see.

     Perhaps you’ve already seen the following public service pitch:

     Or perhaps this one:

     Or perhaps this one, “starring” Will Ferrell:

     Yes, they’re mildly funny. They’re also cries in the wilderness: a wilderness of portable digital devices to which the people of the First World have become so addicted that they no longer take more than passing note of the people and events around them.

     Not long ago, a woman my age, who was a guest at our home, came to our dinner table with her smartphone in her hand. I summoned my “special voice” – it once frightened a policeman into apologizing to me in front of a crowd – and told her to put it down at once. Her reply: “Just let me finish this text.” I blew my stack, she looked up and saw my expression, and she finally got the message. Her husband, a retired deputy sheriff, glanced at me...and nodded in approval.

     I forbore to ask him why he had never done any such thing...because it was clear that he hadn’t.

     Courtesy of David Drake, here’s another straw in the wind:

     Restaurants are doing away with dining rooms as consumers increasingly order food deliveries through apps such as Uber Technologies Inc's Uber Eats and GrubHub Inc.

     The newest Chopt Creative Salad Co location, which opened Tuesday in New York, is unlike any of the chain's other 61 sites. It has no cash registers or tables for customers.

     Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A Inc has similar sites in Nashville and Louisville, where customers order and prepay online with the option for delivery or pickup.

     Chick-fil-A is also trying something different, opening three pilot 'delivery kitchens' this year - in Chicago, Los Angeles and near San Francisco. The latter is run by delivery platform DoorDash Inc.

     The article mentions only restaurants of the fast-food variety. I have no doubt that the trend will soon spread to restaurants of the more traditional, sit-and-eat variety. The reason isn’t that diners are “rushed,” or can’t leave their homes for some practical reason. It’s that there’s no point to going out to dine with other people when you can stay comfortably at home with your smartphone. Besides, a lot of restaurants forbid the use of cellphones in their dining rooms, and we can’t have that. We might miss something critical on Twitter or Facebook!

     Am I the only American remaining who senses the danger in these trends? Is no one else willing to raise his voice and say “Put it down or lose me forever!” — ?

     About now there will be Gentle Readers saying to themselves that “Fran’s losing it,” and surfing away. Not all of them will be smartphone addicts. Some will say “But I need it for my work!” And the majority of those will probably be honest and sincere. But that doesn’t justify enslaving oneself to what was once styled a “personal digital assistant.”

     We’re being parted from one another by our digital devices. We’re paying no more than minimal attention to our immediate surroundings and the people in them, including family and friends. We’re treating ringtones and smartphone alerts as possessing a higher priority than in-the-flesh interaction with persons we claim to love and value.

     It’s killing us. It’s killing our society.

     Employers are part of the problem. We’re allowing them to usurp every moment of our waking lives through those damnable digital leashes. Many employers command their serfs to leave their smartphones turned on at all times. You thought wearing a pager was bad? That pager your smartphone replaced couldn’t track your movements, now could it?

     One more video clip, this one from Paddy Chayevsky’s brilliant 1976 movie Network:

     That was about the use of television to misinform and indoctrinate. The point was a good one. It remains valid. But television wasn’t nearly as destructive back then as the smartphone is today.

     Turn off your smartphone. Then put it in a drawer in your desk or bureau. Don’t take it out again until you need to make a call – and it had better be a call that must be made from your smartphone. When the call is finished, don’t use it to “check” Twitter or Facebook. Turn it off again, put it back into the drawer, and indulge in present-world, present-time reality.

     What’s that you say? You don’t need grubby old reality with all its noise and complications and mess? Reality is a crutch for people who can’t afford smartphones? Oh, very funny. But what if reality should decide that it no longer needs you? Whose opinion do you think would prevail then, eh, hero?

     Give it some thought – without your smartphone to hand. We know what it would say.


Drake's Place said...

I couldn't agree with you more on the dislike of sitting down for dinner with people attached to their electronic devices. It's maddening.

Appreciate the mention and link, Francis - thank you.

Tracy Coyle said...

I was on a train and a young couple was seated across from me. We were traveling along the coast and it was a beautiful sunset. They were both on phones...not talking however. I KICKED both in the shins (lightly), and when they looked up, I looked at and noted the beautiful sunset. They smiled, put down the phones and snuggled while watching the sun set.

I have been tethered for 20+ years, and this is important, WORK only occupies a very small fraction of that time. 95% of the rest is MINE and I don't spend it looking DOWN.

What's the old saying? The body goes where the eyes lead....

Adrienne said...

I have a so-called "smart phone." I use it to text a few times a week for household related contacts (roofers, tractor repair peeps, et al) Pretty much the rest of the time it's off - sometimes for days at a time. I went online once and thought, "Hmmmmm - that's sort of cool." Never went back.


A few months ago, while doing the dishes by hand (washer broke, no $ to buy a new one) my phone chimed at me. I started to reach for a cloth to dry my hands when I realized with a start that I'd been operant-conditioned to do so. And interestingly, there was no message, no voice mail, no nothing. Just a sound to get me to look at it!!!

Now, no. I look at it from time to time, and NEVER when it chimes at me unless it's something I'm expecting.

Cederq said...

Mr Porretto, O/T, I haven't been on for a few days and upon perusing your blog have noticed the new format and colors and text, thank you, it is far easier to read then the white on black text. Thank you for the change and my old eyes appropriate it!

Manu said...

Among those of my generation, I am very disconnected from social media and the digital leash...

...and yet reading this, I am reminded that this is relative. I'm still too invested in it and waste far too much time with it.

It's something for us all to be cognizant of.