Downward Mobility


A few weeks ago, I picked up my wife after work so we could enjoy an outrageously overdue night out.  She popped in the car, said "Hey," and got back to clicking and pecking at her iPhone. I said, "Honey, I need to tell you something."  She replied, "Just give me a minute."  Five minutes later, I said, "Honey..." stifled by, "I just need another minute."  Five minutes later, I was done.  "My dad got in a fistfight with the mailman."  30 seconds later, "I'm sorry, what did we get in the mail?" 

My wife is having an affair with her phone.  After all, he has everything—smarts, good looks, a killer reputation, fame, and a nice package.

As early as the 1600s, studies in electricity were making a mark on mankind.  The industrial revolution spawned profound change.  The advent of radio and TV seized our senses to no end.  But mobility devices are a mad dash to the profound.

Gartner Research reported that mobile phone sales reached 1.5 billion units last year alone.  Yes, 1.5 billion units sold from Minnesota to Madagascar.  The Pew Internet Project reported that 94 percent of Americans own a smart phone.

The romance is so obsessive that, right now, a million Americans are sending text messages, making calls or otherwise using a handheld while driving. “Hey kids, mommy’s gotta tweet Aunt Josie, so can you watch the freeway for me for a sec?”  This is not a joke.  How about the eighth-grader from Long Island who captured a photo of her school bus driver steering with her wrists while texting a friend.

Despite the immediate satisfaction afforded by our zesty, lusty high-tech trysts, we must not forget that every affair has its consequences.

For instance, when our rendezvous with the latest and greatest runs its course, what is to become of our Galaxy, iPhone, Pixel or OnePlus? Answer: nothing good.  Electronics account for 70 percent of toxic waste each year.  Considering escalating mobility sales and diminishing life expectancies (approximately two years), this already vast wasteland will continue to widen.

What does Mother Earth think about re-digesting all that cadmium, lead, mercury?  Think of it this way.  It’s like putting your cat on a steady diet of all the hairballs she already heaves.

But surely all the mobile productivity must far outweigh these petty concerns, right?

Seven years ago, the opening line of an abstract used for an MIT Communications forum stated this: “No contemporary cultural artifact embodies the genius and the disruptive excess of capitalism as clearly as the cellphone."

American adults spend roughly three hours per day on their smartphones.  Some estimates have college kids yapping for nearly five.  The average mobile user first uses the device at 7:00am and last uses it at 10pm.  Two hours are spent on leading social platforms including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.  90 percent of our mobile time is spent using apps.

We cannot help but be amazed by this leap.  Surely, most of us have thanked our lucky stars there’s a smartphone by our side when the car breaks down in Timbuktu or expecting mom's water breaks during a breakfast meeting.

Yet, we must also wonder whether we might be too busy looking down to see what's up.  The world is a place that exists in our palms, not our eyes.  One can only wonder what the world will look like through the lens of our next generation.

Young Customer:
What’s next for smartphones?

Phone Store Sales Guy:
Well, I hear they’re making one that will remotely milk cows.

Young Customer:
What’s a cow?

Mobility is the dreamy protagonist in our global screenplay.  The Superman of 21st century zeitgeist.  We are far more powerful than a locomotive or faster than a speeding bullet.  From under-glass fingerprint sensors to facial unlock to pro camera functionality to augmented reality, all this gadget and widget gusto continues to further fortify a transition to another dimension.

Or does it?

While each new bell or whistle makes its way into the milieu, our evening stars and our partner’s gazes seem to drift farther and farther away.

And what of the impact such technology has introduced to our physical being?

On the lighter side, upon signing a document the other day, it occurred to me just how poor my penmanship had become in absence of a need to hold a pen.

On the darker side, 1.6 million traffic crashes per year involve cellphone use.

And on the even “weightier” side, could “mobility” actually be a contradiction in terms?  During the past 20 years, there has been a stunning increase in obesity in the United States.  Obesity rates exceed 35 percent in five states, 30 percent in 25 states, and 25 percent in 46 states.  Who doesn’t have a neighbor or friend that texts you instead of walking next door or down the block to say, “Hey.”  When everything is always at out fingertips, it usually means we don’t have to go far to get what we want.

Not to mention, medical folks cite that 80 percent of Americans will suffer some form of back pain.  One in ten of us are hunched, crunched, or bunched up partly because we’re sitting stock-still staring at a stationary screen for hours on end.

Whether smartphones or Big Macs, we have become an extraordinarily consumptive species and one currently less satiated than ever.  Amid all this self-proclaimed acceleration associated with tech toys, significant devolution is afoot.  Just look at Fox News.

How many families have quality dinner time together anymore?  Decades ago, most did, nearly every night, and without distraction of any kind.  Today, however, these relationships suffer techno-disruption at every phase of a day.

With all this fuss over a foundering U.S. public education system and more than 7,000 students dropping out of high school every day—worse than most developed countries—you’d think smart technologies would facilitate at least some smarter results.  Yet, how many classrooms can possibly be sources of undisrupted learning these days when 42 percent of students admit to using smartphones for personal reasons during class time, and those same classrooms are so over-burdened that most resort to digital learning as a means to contend with absurd student-teacher ratios.  We're a long way from passing a note to your crush in the back row.

In the end, I love my wife more than anything.  But when she goes digital, I feel like a widower.  As a society that increasingly looks downward while remarkable natural assets continue to disappear or go otherwise ravaged or ignored, it often makes me think of the visionary spectacle that hit the big screen during the time commercial high-tech took it’s new post in our world.  Kyle Reese, human foil to The Terminator, was dead on about technology’s crush on the human condition when he uttered that now infamous maxim, “Pain can be controlled - you just disconnect it."

Doug ForbesComment