Copyright © by Len Holman, 6/9/11
I have a phone. It makes calls and receives them. It was cheap and I have no contract because I buy a card with minutes, and I never use all the minutes before my time expires, when I have to buy more minutes. My phone doesn’t play movies or games or have apps to help make my shelves straight or find local restaurants or track the latest from Lady Gaga. I can’t download the latest movie or get a ringtone which is Mozart at his finest or the mating call of a moose. I carry it when I’m out in case I need to call Triple-A, or my wife. When I get home, I turn it off. I use my land line to fend off cold calls from insurance companies and charities and drunks trying to call a cab. I have seen the latest phones—some of my students have them—and they are a marvel of technology. They do things no one really needs to do, but they do it in color, with screens bigger than the one our TV had when I was a kid. They weigh more than a well-fed gerbil, and no one can buy the latest, fanciest one because by the time the contract has expired, three generations of phones have come on the market, and the consumer has missed the latest tweak. I have been told by these (mostly) young people that I am hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. My reply is straightforward: “At least I don’t have brain cancer.”
Yet another study has emerged which suggests—which does not directly state—that the emissions from phones affect brain chemistry, and not in a good way. Last February, a neuroscientist at the national Institutes of Health led a study which showed that cellphone activity triggered measurable effects on the brain, and suggests that the 300 million cellphones may be altering the way we think and behave. And before that, studies showed how distracted drivers got when they were alone in their vehicle, talking on their phones—much more distracted than they were if they were talking to another person next to them in the car, thus all the state laws against using cells while driving.
But no matter the bad news, no matter the massive payments cell plans charge, no matter how insipid, foolish, useless or hurtful the programming for these devices is, the public buys them; the technology is so slick, so enticing, we buy it even though we don’t need it. We buy the apps because there are over 60,000 Apple apps to choose from, so we choose several, and pay for them. Three hundred million cells is almost one per person, and I have to wonder if someone doesn’t have more than his or her share, since you don’t see many iPads or Androids in nursing homes or shelters for homeless and indigent families or rehab centers for vets.
This is no Luddite screed, but wonderment at the lengths to which we go—and have gone—to invent, use, and misuse, technology, with no thought to secondary or tertiary harmful circumstances. There is no end to the wonderful life-saving, labor-saving technologies invented and used in the last 100 years, but there is also no end to the stupidity and dangerous results which ensued just because we used a technology before we understood its consequences—in some cases even though we understood its consequences. Technology carries its risks, no doubt, but there is a strand of consumer technology which could impact all of us and we don’t have even the slightest discussions about where it is all going to take us. Will we continue to buy cars which talk to us, make calls for us, tell us which way to turn, which have TVs for the kiddies in back (no more “are we there yet?”), and which can be started at a distance by a touch of a panel on a smart phone. This is handy on cold mornings, but the ads for this app show a woman on a plane starting a car for her husband who is presumably some miles away. Does anyone really need this?
But of course, it’s not about need, it’s about want. And we seem to want it all. Buddhist reasoning tells us that wanting is craving, and craving causes suffering and we suffer when we can’t get the latest, greatest tech thing. We hear whining all the time about America’s decline due to loose morals (or NO morals), and that we don’t make anything here anymore. Maybe our supposedly loose morality is due to a complete lack of discipline coupled with machines which bring us every naked whim we might have, and every pornographic desire we might indulge (just ask Rep. Weiner). And we DO make stuff here: weapons that every dictator and terror cell lust for, and things with computer chips inside. The Shakers don’t make those keen rocking chairs anymore, and Henry Ford isn’t making Tin Lizzies and when you go to Wal-Mart, look at the labels and see where most of the things are made. But we DO make something: desire.
Capitalism is alive and well in this regard, but to what end? No, I didn’t walk five miles in the snow, barefoot, to get to school, or draw water from a well and lug it back to the cabin for the Saturday night bath—but I did learn that whatever it was I wanted, I had two complementary choices: 1) work for it or wait for it and/or 2) Do without it for now or do without it forever. It’s almost beyond dispute that every generation thinks the young people of the time are spoiled, have lost core values, have deteriorated, are lazy, ignorant about everything, and slovenly. But how many times must this dance be held without having the band finally leave the stage? Once the bell is rung, there is no unringing it, but where are alternatives? Where are the consequences? And what are we teaching our young about being human in a world where justifications are made for touch screens because “it’s more human.” It’s human to touch, but is it human to touch a machine so that turning a page is waving a finger in the air while the display on the screen looks and sounds as if we are actually turning a real page? What’s the point?
I knew a mechanic once who would start an engine, listen to it for a few seconds and say something like, “Your valves are burned.” Now, they plug a car into a computer and the machine says, “Your valves are burned.” That saves time, I guess, but is it good for us to rely on so much machinery? My old truck has handles for rolling down the windows, which is good because if the electronic brain goes out while the windows are down, and it starts to rain, you can swim home. Is this better for us? We consume—that’s what we need to do, and we seem only to want to consume mindlessly. The Buddha would be proud.
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