If your phone is smarter than you, it is not time to get a new phone: It’s time to get a new life.
Many of us have more intimate relationship with our devices than we have with members of our immediate family. We’re more attached to our devices, more fond of them, responsive to them and attuned to every nuance of their tiny, soulless selves than we are to, say, our first cousins.
We remember the day we got our first computer or iPad but forget the exact year our nephew got married. We know how to upload apps but don’t have a current mailing address for our best friend from high school. We’ve bookmarked cute puppy-meets-dolphin videos from “HappyPlace” but erased the performance by our neighbor when she sang in the community theater production of “The Fantasticks.”
We know how to play “Candy Crush” but we don’t know how to make folks feel comfortable by talking to them when they enter a room; we know how to Instagram our meal but have lost the art of making conversation over dinner.
I’ll admit that I have a severe allergic reaction to seeing people using electronic devices at meals. It’s like being allergic to nuts. Actually, as far as I’m concerned, it is being allergic to nuts.
I’ve seen whole groups sitting around a lovely table at a nice restaurant where every family member, ages 7 to 70, is holding a rectangular piece of plastic, eyes down, thumbs going like mad (OK, Grandpa might be using a stylus) and saying, in terms of spoken language, exactly nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada. It’s unnerving, right? If you’re at a table nearby, you find yourself speaking in low voices because the group almost looks lost in prayer, heads bowed as if their devices were hymnals.
The only person using her normal voice near that table is the server, who’s been instructed by management to memorize the menu because to read the daily specials from a sheet of paper might be considered unsophisticated by the patrons. Since none of the patrons bothers to look up at the server, of course, she could be crossing her eyes and sticking both index fingers in her ears while wiggling them around as she explains how the scrod is prepared. So much for ambience. Who’d know?
And don’t tell me that little Riley is having more interaction with Grandpa via “Pet Rescue Saga” than she would be if they were talking to each other. You know that’s ridiculous.
That’s like saying, “I’m not fat, I’m big-boned” or “I’m on a gluten-free diet not to be thin but for health reasons.” Sure, in some cases it is true — but you know what I’m saying, right? How many people would be on a gluten-free diet if it immediately made you gain, say, 100 pounds? Some would, but not as many. And sometimes Grandpa and Riley are better off not talking, but not usually.
But right now in our culture we justify an odd collection of behaviors effectively and efficiently enough to make them appear ordinary and convincingly “normal.”
We look up information we should know, and we rely on a kind of technological exoskeleton to keep us upright rather than strengthening the core of our knowledge. As we over-medicate ourselves and become less physically resilient, so we become less intellectually resilient when we over-tech ourselves.
When we rely on a computer to remember the name of that actress from that movie, we miss out on the glorious feeling when we retrieve it on our own. Here’s how George Eliot described it: “That action of memory … had suddenly completed itself without conscious effort — a common experience, agreeable as a completed sneeze, even if the name remembered is of no value.”
If it’s too easy, there’s no fun.
And it’s our fault. Technology, like nature, is neither friend nor foe. It is profoundly and astonishingly indifferent; human beings are no smarter, and no less smart, than we once were or will ever be.
Technology is simply there — to be made our servant or our master, as we see fit — and we are responsible for choosing how we use it.
Now that you’ve finished reading, please look up.
Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut and columnist for the Hartford Courant can be reached throughginabarreca.com