My stepdaughter is 8 years old, and loves video games. We try to broaden her horizons and bribe her into trying out the outdoors, but it’s a constant battle against the onslaught of new and shiny technology which makes the digital world more ubiquitous and unreality increasingly more real. The deep vibrance and alluringly smooth graphics of her dad’s IPad are enticing in a new way, replacing once desperately loved games on PS3 and the Wii. The complete focus and stillness, only her fingers moving in swipes across the screen, is a strange counterpoint to her otherwise almost frantic energy. Watching her has shown me, in a very vivid fashion, that the pace of technology is not slowed by any human need to digest it before moving on, or an unwillingness to digitize almost any experience.
I took trains a lot when I was in my late teens and early 20s – it started because I disliked flying, but found that I loved multi-day, cross country trips: watching the landscape slide by, reading, and striking up long conversations with other passengers. Then almost 10 years went by before I nostalgically decided to take the train from Seattle to San Diego. A decade had transformed the experience: couples hunched over laptops watching movies, most people wore headphones of some kind, and long conversations happened, but on cell phones. I don’t think I’m longing for the good-ol-days, but it was a stark noticing of how technology changes environments.
I heard about IPads about a year ago, and naively thought it sounded like a fad – but then I was the last person I knew to get a cell phone, holding out for years after all of my friends and family had one. A cell phone didn’t cure me of digital reluctance – I now stubbornly cling to my flip phone despite the convenience of smart phones. A smart phone would intrude into the relatively small amount of life I’m not parked in front of a screen of some kind. Because I spend a lot of time commuting, I have time to observe the phenomenon of smart phones and IPads. Very few people seem to be able to completely lose themselves in something the size of a playing card. IPads are different, with the power to transform a busy street corner, noisy bus, or hectic coffeeshop into a solitary world – the surreal absorption of my stepdaughter playing “Angry Birds”, replicated in the unlikeliest places. Again, slowly but inevitably changing common environments and social interactions.
When the movie The Matrix came out in 1999, it was mostly seen as a smarter sci-fi movie: later, after the first-Friday hubbub died down, philosophers analyzed the movie as a commentary on capitalism and commercialism. There is the memorable scene where Neo chooses the red pill, and awakens from a sleek and comfortable existence to a grey, chilly, and grimly mediocre real world. Later, visiting the fake world again, he momentarily becomes transfixed by a familiar restaurant – coming to, he guiltily confesses his remembrance – “Really good noodles”, he muses.
I know the feeling. I often long for my own favorite movies and websites that allow me to escape from the hectic and constant demands of modern life – and the tiredness of “waking up” to what can seem like mediocre real life. And while I loved The Matrix for its entertaining and philosophical warning for the future, I didn’t fully understand that the danger isn’t of our being consumed by real corporations or mythical super-machines. The real danger is we might gladly pay for the subscription.