When I was a kid, whenever I wanted my mother to buy me anything that wasn’t a bare essential, she’d snort and call me either Rockefeller or King Farouk. John D. Rockefeller, of course, was the world’s richest man once, and Farouk was the flamboyantly wealthy Egyptian king in the mid-20th Century.
Ma had a problem with perspective. She couldn’t just say, “Sorry, Mike, I really can’t afford that Tonka dump truck just now. Maybe someday.” I could have understood that. What I couldn’t grasp was being compared to two of the wealthiest and most profligate spenders on Earth just because I wanted a toy.
Ma was, after all, a product of the Great Depression and World War II, and we spawn of that so-called Greatest Generation have heard all the stories they loved to tell about how hard they had it and how heroic they were in overcoming it all.
They were, more accurately, the Greatest Self-Congratulating Generation.
Anyway, were Ma still around to count her pennies, she’d drop dead upon learning that a telephone can now cost a thousand dollars and more.
I resisted getting a smartphone for the first few years of the technology’s existence. Then, around 2014 I figured I’d join the crowd since my insistence on holding on to my flip-phone was becoming, to friends and acquaintances, a potentially worrisome quirk.
It’s not that I’m averse to new technology. Hell, I was among the very first people to have a cell phone. I got one in 1997 when you weren’t even allowed to put down a cell number on an application. And, before that, I purchased one of the very first laptops four decades ago when they still weighed about as much as a small refrigerator.
But my philosophy long has been this: If I haven’t said to myself prior to the introduction of some new device, “Golly, if only someone would invent a… fill-in-the-blank,” then I don’t need the thing.
I’m no Luddite, mind you. I recall walking down Michigan Avenue one day about 40 years ago, thinking, “Y’know, it’d be great if I could have a little portable phone that’d fit into my pocket. I wouldn’t have to miss any calls.” Around the same time, I dreamed of a portable super-typewriter I could carry in my backpack and would let me write wherever and whenever I wanted and that could hold all my rantings and whatever articles I was working on. A laptop, in other words.
And, yeah, I eventually did come around to buying a smartphone. That was about ten years ago. I had the thing for a few years and found it unwieldy, too easily marred or broken, and — most of all — way, way, way, way too addictive. So, in 2017, I walked into the Verizon store and asked for a flip phone. The clerk looked at me as if I’d asked to see his selection of hourglasses. He had to ask his manager if they still carried the things. The manager came out and asked me if I was sure. I assured him I was and he nodded, skeptically.
See, I’d never said to myself, Golly gee, if only I could be tethered to the internet every second of the day. If only I could remain in constant contact with every friend I’ve ever made and millions of others with whom I’m as yet unacquainted. If only it had all the music I’ve ever accumulated, every picture I’ve ever taken, every detail of my life, all electronically stored in an electronic cloud. If only I could have at my immediate beck and call the exact height of the Burj Khalifa, the population of the state of Nevada, the precise date and time Prince died, all on a device I can use while hurtling down the expressway at 72 miles per hour, eating dinner, or having sex.
I’ve never envisioned the day when such a device and its software would addict me as effectively as alcohol, heroin, or nicotine. Yep, researchers have determined that our dependence on smartphones is, indeed, an addiction. And the apps that pretty much every business in existence insist we download are crafted to reach us at a cellular, hormonal level. One study in the journal, Addictive Behaviors, indicates that smartphone usage produces brain restructuring disturbingly similar to that resulting from recreational hard drug use.
A group of former Facebook and Apple workers four years ago revealed their ex-employers specifically designed software to addict users at an early age, just like cigarette manufacturers did a half century ago.
Smartphones have turned us away from trusting our own eyes and ears. A gorgeous sunset, the Grand Canyon, a NASA rocket launch, hell, even the cute-ness of our dogs, cats and kids can’t be enjoyed in the moment. They have to be stored on our smartphones. I saw the motorcade of former president Jimmy Carter pull up on Wabash Avenue one afternoon a few decades ago. Everybody stopped in their tracks, watched him get out, and walk into a bookstore. They applauded him respectfully and then went about their business. Now, of course, everybody’d be too busy trying to catch the moment on their smartphones rather than seeing it.
The thing is, I remember that moment with clarity. In my mind it’s as though Carter stepped out of that limousine just this morning. Were I too busy clicking a photo of it, perhaps my memory of it would be lost. Either that or never imprinted in the first place.
“Stop living an almost life,” Bill Maher said in a bit last August.
People walk into a party and they immediately text their friends saying “Where are you? What are you doing?” They watch a guy hit a home run at the ballpark and instead of cheering, they’re clicking. They sit down to eat breakfast at a restaurant and they send the picture of it around the globe, as if the rest of us have never seen bacon and eggs before.
The here and the now are no more.
Smartphones are expensive and they’re vital drivers of our economy. Consumer capitalism being what it is, corporations have found new and creative ways for us to get hooked on their stuff. And Ma, were she still with us, would at last rightly be able to say, “Who do you think you are, King Farouk?”