*When the food arrives, the five guests at a table in the bustling, upscale eatery moan and sigh in delight. Someone declares she is starving. Another insists he hasn’t eaten all day, having saved his ferocious appetite for just this moment. Everyone at the table is excited.
However, before anyone digs in, as if on cue, three of the diners produce cell phones and dutifully begin recording digital images of the dishes before them.
I see this a lot in restaurants, people snapping cell photos of their food. I’ve been on the receiving end of these impromptu mealtime photo sessions, too, with friends (and strangers) sending me digital images of magnificent looking risotto and decedent desserts. But what was once an endearing antic, now seems like yet another foible of a culture overtaken by technology.
To be sure, technology is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Without it, our lives wouldn’t be the enchanting existence we often take for granted. Indeed, it is because of technology that you’re reading this.
However, technology has also allowed us the option of neglecting precious human faculties, basic common sense and on occasion, sublime imagination. And increasingly, we’re all too eager to do so.
It was singer Chaka Khan who introduced me to that last notion. During an interview with me in the early ‘80s, when the fax machine seemed like something out of “Star Trek,” she opined that the music video, then an emerging component of pop music marketing rivaling commercial radio, robbed listeners of the opportunity to hear a tune and attach to it their own sentimentality.
“If you hear a song when you see the video,” she said, “next time you hear that song anywhere, you’re going to think of images created for you by some director.” Being old enough to have created my own memories for some great pre-‘80s music, I could relate.
But technology, if we allow it, doesn’t only rob us of our imagination. How many phone numbers do you know by heart? The digits we use most, we program into our phones and call them by pressing a single assigned number.
I’ve never been arrested, but the idea that I could spend any amount of time in the clink (that’s archaic slang for jail) simply because I’m not able to make that infamous “one phone call”–because without my cell, I wouldn’t know a phone number–scares the hell out of me.
Meanwhile, many of us don’t actually read the books we “read;” we listen to a recording of someone else reading it for us—often while driving automobiles able to parallel park themselves with the click of a switch. Soon, computer-driven cars will be available to the public. One problem with these vehicles on the road, say developers, will be the transition between automatic and when the drivers themselves push a button to take control. In other words, the cars drive better than we do. And the less we actually drive, the more our driving skills deteriorate.
No wonder we worry so much about the health of our brains—we’re giving them less and less to do.
It didn’t used to be this way. Back in the day, we remembered phone numbers, addresses, zip codes and birthdates—not just our own, but those of everyone we knew. We could conjure every stanza of different prayers for various occasions; knew our multiplication tables and insurance policy numbers, not to mention every lyric to all our favorite songs. My grandmother on mama’s side never dedicated the recipe of a single dish to paper. It was all in her head.
Before you say, “Well, hey, Fred Flintstone, back in the day we had polio, too,” please understand that I fully embrace this better way of doing things. It’s absolutely out of this world. I love it. But how about some balance?
It’s not even like some B Sci-fi flick, where the machines take over; we’re GIVING the machines all the power. I know parents who say they HAD to learn to text; otherwise, they wouldn’t hear from their kids at all. Who made that decision?
Next time you’re out, play this game: while walking or driving along, count the people you see on the street talking on their cell or gazing into its screen as they walk, paying little attention to where they’re going, like so many zombies–that is, if you can bring your eyes up from your own screen. They’re so preoccupied with “Angry Birds” or whatever, that they’re missing REAL birds. And trees. And clouds. And crooks waiting to snatch their prized phones.
This is what addiction looks like. I’ve never visited a crack house, but I’m told that customers inside can start fighting when the drug arrives—just like they do in line down at the Apple store, waiting on the new iPhone.
As they wait, they feed their terminal narcissism by texting and tweeting their every twitch. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Selfies and Instagram, the term “personal business” has all but lost its cachet. If society becomes anymore self-absorbent, the people who make Brawny will file suit charging product infringement.
Certainly, there are moments when having a phone able to shoot moving pictures comes in handy. Like at the scene of an accident or a crime. Or, on the occasion of an event to be treasured. However, keep in mind that while you’re recording that once-in-a-lifetime moment, something unlikely is happening: you’re missing it.
Yes, you’re “getting it all” on your phone, but you’re disengaged from the circumstance. Try as you might, I’m not convinced you can LIVE in the moment and record it, too. When you play it back, you’re going to have the visual and the sound, but not the magic or the passion of the moment. You missed that part and it’s gone forever.
Keep it up, and we’ll be a society of Pod People, like those in the 1956 movie, “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.” In that flick, aliens invade Earth, and when humans fall asleep, the aliens replace them with duplicates that look human but are devoid of any emotion or individuality. These days, turns out, some of the most unlikely folk are noddin’ off.
Case in point: Prince. Once one of the fiercest critics of social networking, the musician recently joined Twitter (Prince, wake up. HEY…Oh dear God—Prince!…PRINCE!! WAKE UP!!).
His first tweet simply said, “Prince’s 1st tweet…testing 1,2…” Cute. A minute later, his second tweet went, “Prince’s 2nd tweet.” However, a few minutes later, there was this: “Prince’s 3rd tweet: did eye add 2 much pepper?”
And accompanying that communiqué was the ominous, tweeted photo of (God, no) a small salad of greens and cherry tomatoes, sitting on a dinner table somewhere, and yes, wearing way too much pepper.
Clearly, it’s no longer 1999.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via[email protected]