We live in remarkable times. More technology than probably existed when I was 20 can now fit into the palm of my hand. Information is everywhere, and we are now not only its consumers but its couriers. When I was a boy, I wondered how a motion picture could be transmitted from a giant radio tower into a box in my home. (I’ve read about the process many times since, but I still wonder.) Today what we think of as the “airwaves” can easily be defined as a distance of a few feet. I call up an episode of Louie on the Netflix app on my phone, Chromecast it to the TV via WiFi, and boom – I’m watching what I want, when I want. And it’s not just contemporary entertainment. YouTube has become a veritable Library of Congress for almost anything that’s been committed to a recordable format. I can demystify and de-cobweb my own brain’s memory by searching for and playing a bad TV commercial from 1982, one that I vaguely remembered. I can read a news article from 1912 without hoofing it to the library and scanning the microfiche. (For those of you who remember microfiche.) And of course this treasure trove of video, audio, and print is not confined to our homes or even our persons. It now seems to be wherever we go.
There’s the rub. It’s everywhere, and it’s hard to put down, turn off, X-out, sign out. Screens are now ubiquitous, unblinking eyes, that seem to follow us through our daily routines whether we require them or not. Airport terminals are riddled with them, as if passengers need to be reminded of the existence of Isis before boarding their flights to Omaha. Get on the plane and there’s often one not a foot from your face. Dark bars that once kept a single TV in the corner for heavyweight prize fights and World Series games are now bathed in the hot white heat of a dozen LED screens. When I hop in a taxi, I’m greeted with a screen playing prepackaged news and entertainment segments. I can turn the sound off, but I can never turn off the screen.
Fine, we can’t control those screens. What about the ones we can control? The phones, tablets, and TVs we all use and enjoy? In a pedestrian-heavy city like New York, I see it all the time: People walking down the street, eyes and fingers trained on their phone screens, as if the Word of God were about to be delivered right after a quick Taco Bell ad. Curmudgeons have taken to calling them “cell phone zombies.” I think this is an insult to zombies, who usually are facing forward and have an air of purpose about them. The purpose of a cell phone zombie seems to be to disengage with the world blithely, because their Instagram or Tinder or Vine or Buzzfeed list or text message is simply more interesting. They don’t watch where they’re going, because their expectation is that they’re obviously so preoccupied with the banality of the online world that people will move out of their way. I repeatedly defy their expectations.
I say this as a 39-year-old, so I’m sure I’m showing my age, but I also say it as someone who’s been guilty of it, too. An airport delay, a traffic jam, a long wait in the doctor’s office – who wouldn’t seek refuge in quick entertainment? But when it becomes a habit, or worse, a crutch, is when I consciously put the damn thing away. It is the great irony of our age that as we become more connected, we become more isolated. We seek refuge behind our devices and by doing so, we stigmatize real interaction. Don’t believe me? Take note at how often the word “creepy” is bandied about to describe people these days. Creepy used to refer to Halloween stories, but now it’s a catch-all term for anyone who distracts us from our comfort zone. Its use tells me more about the cowardice of the user than the supposed creepiness of the object of his or her contempt.
You want to know how to excel in this world? Be the one who puts down the device. Interact with the world. Make eye contact when it’s appropriate. Talk to people. You’d be surprised how desperately most people want to be talked to, or asked about. Separate yourself from the herd of zombies. They may try to pull you back in. The advantage will be yours, and your real-life experiences will be better than any YouTube video.
It’s not just about people, either. The world is filled with amazing visuals and audio. I live in a big, polluted, crowded metro area and I see them daily. A well-manicured garden, a beautifully-designed 100-year-old building, a blue sky, an antique convertible, a street saxophonist, a conversation in a foreign language. And it’s all in high definition and 3D and hi-fi stereo, free of charge.
Our devices are truly incredible in their capacity, speed, and performance. But compared with our brains, they pale in comparison. The inner workings of the human mind reveal a supercomputer honed on billions of years of processing and amassing and trial and error. The human mind simply could not exist in its modern form – could not imagine let alone devise modern technology – without real interaction with the world. The cave man who dodged the saber-toothed tiger was as much an architect of your smartphone as Samsung. But just like any computer, the brain needs its down time, to be refreshed and “updated.” That’s when one should tap into the best app available – the world around us. Yes, it’s free.