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Good Is Good: My Love/Hate Relationship With My Devices

Thursday, January 31, 2013

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

There’s the fablets and the iPad minis; the Surface and the Air; the iMac and the Fire; the Android and the 5; the 100-inch plasmas and the HD projectors; the DS and the Wii; Android, BlackBerry (for at least a little while longer), and Beats to keep the sound private. There’s Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LaterBro, Tweepi, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Bit.ly, and Tumblr.

Is this progress? Really?

If you have little kids, you know that every waking moment is a war over what device your kid wants to play and whether you will let them—from Wii to TV at home, to built-in screens in the car, to iPhones at dinner.

If you have teenage kids who, God help you, drive, you are already paying bills for fender benders that occurred while your kid, or one of their friends, was texting, tweeting, or fb’ing while they should have been watching the road. And you are likely already paying the mental health bills, either in dollars or in anguish, for the damage done by trying to keep up appearances on the web with all the other perfect kids who seem to have great friends and fun 25 hours a day (even though they too are close to the edge of a breakdown).

And let’s be honest, if you are a middle-aged fart like me, you probably have a half-dozen electronic devices that are on your person non-stop. You check your e-mail and your tweet stream while emptying the gizzard in the middle of the night. Romantic dinners and kids’ birthday parties become one long excuse to watch the electronic world go by under the table or, if crisis hits, in a bathroom stall somewhere nearby.

Of real love, of real conversation, of heartache and politics and in-the flesh passions, we know precious little in the 21st century. We don’t read books. We live in 140-character bursts animated by shadowed Instagrams shared with the world. Our attention span has been reduced to a constant adrenaline-producing electronic shock. And when that depletes the mind and the soul, bring on the Red Bull and the 5-hour Energy shots. And keep on going until we end up in the ER with heart failure.

I keep thinking about Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which takes place in a future where, as described by New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, “Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their ‘hotness’ quotient to others” (“Love Found Amid Ruins of Empire,” July 26, 2010).

Is that where this is all headed? Live-streaming our thoughts and a real-time analysis of “hotness” in any given room? It doesn’t seem that far away from where I’m sitting.

###

First, a confession. Maybe two while I’m at it.

The holidays have not been good to me in terms of electronic devices. I am a hard-core addict when it comes to booze (sober 16 years) and a myriad of other things, including ever-greater ways to duck the physical world through virtual reality via the genius of the now-deceased Steve Jobs (who I found, just btw, to be an assoholic like me while reading his biography, which I wrote about at great length HERE if you really care). I’d like to blame my holiday run-ins on my in-laws, a wild lot of Italian/German descent who party hard, and who love as well as fight with equally ferocious passion. But it’s not them, it’s me.

Two years ago, I ended up throwing my iPhone against a tile wall with everything all 6 foot 3 inches and 225 pounds of me could muster. Did you know that the battery inside your phone is actually combustible? Mine apparently exploded on impact.

This year, I got a brand new iPad. Not the Mini for sissies. The full-size one capable of producing my New York Times, New Yorker, and Ken Follett masterpieces with amazing clarity. Movies, pictures, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook all at my fingertips, even in bed next to my wife when I can’t sleep.

I was in the bathroom just after Christmas with my new love object. I swear to you I was not multitasking. I had set it on the side of the sink and was washing my hands when the naked piece of glass (the cover was en-route via e-commerce purchase on Amazon) slipped innocently off the water table and smashed on the floor, cracking that ultra-fine glass face.

I was immediately on the phone with my coke dealer, trying to figure out if he could get the iPad replaced via FedEx. My 7-year-old had been stealing my phone and had managed to wear down the home button, so it took a fraction of a second longer to respond than when it was brand new. So I was thinking that I could upgrade that too, especially when I found out that my teenage son had a phone about to be eligible for upgrade so I could stick him with my slightly used 4S and get the 5.

But something happened along the way. I snapped. I started meditating. I gave up Coke Zero. I never replaced my iPad or my iPhone. I erased Twitter, Facebook, and all my son’s games off all my devices. I put myself on lockdown. I made the phone so boring that all it’s good for in the middle of the night is to use as a flashlight and maybe a little BBC news.

I’ve made these declarations about putting down my electronic addictions before, so I am not banking on this lasting very long. But at least for the moment I am untethered and my attention span seems to have grown to about 10 minutes. I am actually reading the massive Passage of Power in physical form. And you know what? For an incredibly researched history book, the damn thing is fascinating.

###

I have confessed my own problems with technology. Surely this is one of those things that I may have a problem with on a micro basis; but you might be saying to yourself, as a society it is perfectly okay for human beings from 18 months to 95 years to stay plugged-in to a blue screen literally every waking hour of every day. What is the big deal?

As someone who has dabbled in social media and even the kind of pointless rants that get the most attention, I would argue that where news used to come to us through a highly regulated stream of skilled reporters and fact-checkers, we now have a purely democratic crowd-sourced reality. This is great for getting the truth out in totalitarian regimes, like Iran, when men and women on the street can report things from the street that reporters in the past would have been killed for by making public.

But in 99 percent of cases, news and opinion have become real-time popularity contests for social media footprint rather than any even-loose association with the facts. We care a lot more about a Korean dude who has a funny music video than we do the wars we are fighting, the fact that more kids are now obese than are starving in our country, the 2 million men we have in prison, or in fact even our national elections.

If it takes more than 140 characters to explain, we are conditioned not to care about it. No adrenaline hit there. Pass the Red Bull and let’s play some more World of Warcraft.

Go to an NBA game where everyone in the front row has paid $1,500 for the privilege of sitting on the floor for two hours of action. What do you see? None of them are even watching what is going on. They all have their fablets out, texting and tweeting away. Virtual reality is better even than watching a 7-foot man sky for a tomahawk dunk literally in your face.

Surely the äppärät is not far behind. We shouldn’t need to talk to each other to get a real-time poll of the hottest person in a room. If we all vote on our phones, the pecking order is established with no human interaction whatsoever. And the best thing is that it is skin deep. No soul required in the judgment.

If you doubt what I am saying, just put down your crackberry, your Android, whatever you’re carrying on your person, for one day. Go cold turkey. And just look around. Watch the people walking into oncoming traffic on the street while they type, the news reporters on TV who quote tweet streams like they are some kind of holy font of knowledge, the bizarre dance moves that take the place of meaningful discussion.

If you can’t bear to put them down for just one day, try one of those romantic dinners with your significant other without something buzzing surreptitiously in your pocket, or take pictures at your kid’s birthday party with an actual camera instead of with your phone with the convenient built-in excuse to check your e-mail just this once.

Again, it could be me on my annual New Year’s rant against the electronic world getting all 19th century on your ass. But I don’t think so.

And if you are reading this on your phone, do me a favor and find a brick wall to throw that thing against so you, like me, can cause the battery to explode. It will make you feel just a little bit freer.

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.

 

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