Life is a Phone

In Culture, Technology on December 2, 2011 at 11:01 pm

In William Gibson’s latest novel, Zero History, he has this great line where he talks about how the idle time that we spend on our cell phone in social settings have replaced cigarettes. Think about it. If a person is sitting outside waiting for someone to pick them up they might fire up their Android phone instead of a stick of Camel Lights. Trying to look cool at the bar by yourself? Pull out your iPhone and pretend like you’re doing something.

This brief little description stuck with me mainly because I see myself doing it all the time. But, I bring it up here because it was exactly the type of thing I was thinking about when I read this post.

In a brief commentary on comedian Louis C.K.’s annoyance with smart phones, Gizmodo blogger Michael Zhao has this fantastic line.

Nowadays when something interesting happens, people get so wrapped up in proving they were there, they neglect to experience the actual moment… Is a life that’s distillable to a 3.5-inch retina display a life truly worth living?

It’s such a simple but poignant statement. The quick answer, one would expect, is that life is certainly worth living with out the 3.5 inch display, however you can’t deny that smartphones are creating a significant cultural shift in the way we experience life. They are far more than devices that we use to call other people. As a matter of fact, we probably spend more time using them then we do actually talking to someone.

During the Occupy Oakland March there were hundreds of people using their phones to aid their experience. Smartphones, in retrospect, seemed like an augmentation that people used to:

  •  Capture the moment.
  • Share it with people who are there and not there.
  • Speak with people who are there and not there.
  • And, to ensure that they were able to maximize their experience using numerous phone features to help navigate through the march (accessing Mapquest, for example, or the BART schedule to plan the exodus back home).

All of this happened en masse and simultaneously creating a phalanx of augmented, connected and similar experiences. It sounds like a beautiful idea, and the march was a great experience, but in leau of C.K.’s comments, I wonder what we may have missed at that protest.

Further, I wonder what we miss in life as we attempt to squeeze everything into a 3.5 inch display. Are our senses (hear, smell, touch, taste and see) being gradually replaced by an augmented and arguably different set of senses (connectivity, capture, and a layered form of communication that involves text, video, pictures and to a lesser degree, voice)? If so, what does this mean for our future? Are we becoming better humans or less than human?

At the end of the clip of Louis C.K.’s rant he jokes that one day Jesus will show up and everyone will be caught up in experiencing it through their phones; taking pictures, texting, tweeting and posting to their friends or YouTube. They will be so caught up with their phones that the value of the experience of standing before Christ and listening to him without any tech support…will irritate the heck out of him.


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