Column: Wiley's Follies
Degrees of iSolation
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 20:01
The telephone call replaced the letter. The text message replaced the telephone call. The social network replaced the text message. Each successive medium came with the promise of heightened intimacy, the assurance our friendships could now span greater distance. But, alas, technology has mutilated the connections it sought to preserve. What remains is an abstract, fragmented form of communication, that functions not on the basis of direct interaction, but rather the casual brushing of our beings, as we anonymously exchange interests, photos, and thoughts.
We are not closer with each other, but rather better informed of each other, at least on a rudimentary level. The language of our interpersonal dealings is exhaustive. “How’s it going?” no longer is a question demanding a response, but rather a loose display of interest. I’ve long believed in the magic of small talk, but its purpose too is tired when a question is no longer a sincere inquiry. “How’s college?” “Anything exciting happen lately?” “Are you seeing anyone new?” “Any good movies out?” “How about the weather?” Why ask? The answer’s only a few taps away.
The world is looking down. A study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation discovered the average 8 to 18-year-old in the United States receives just under 11 hours of media a day—this number far exceeds the recommended hours for sleep and the time the same kids are spending in school. Ten years ago, a similar statistic would likely be tracking hours of television, but today it testifies to the pervasiveness of the smartphone. Television has long been contested by parents, and although questioning it was valid, at least there was a precedent for television’s psychological effect. Television served as a distraction, while the smartphone follows our daily routine, making a distraction of everything else. How then can we even begin to gauge its sociological effects?
The fault lies not in the iPhone, but rather how we grasp it with great religion. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, he describes a dystopian society in which people turn to soma, a hallucinogenic drug, to rid themselves of life’s discomforts. The awkwardness of social engagements, feelings of love too difficult to express, moments of pain, notions of societal discontent—soma could cure it all. Have we found our soma? Have we properly outsourced our pain?
The other day, when describing my iPhone, I caught myself referring to the “internal” and “external” camera—such jargon is relatively standard. But once we realize we’re not describing a flip phone, and indeed both cameras on the iPhone are external, a disturbing shift in our perceptions of ourselves is quite evident: the face of the iPhone has become synonymous with our own inner workings. We’re facing a wall, looking out at the world through a narrow window. If you pay attention, you’ll notice people take their iPhone out of their pocket when they sit down, as if to suggest it’s become a means of protection, or even a set of lungs, an apparatus through which we breathe.
I hope in 20 years, I can chuckle over that silly fad when people tried to live their lives in little boxes. I hope one day the phrase “iPhone” will strike up the same silly nostalgic sentiments “Nintendo 64” and “Sega Genesis” do today. But how do we get out of the box? How can we reclaim a world in which Manti Te’o would have to actually meet his fake girlfriend before she died? Of course, this isn’t just about the “catfish.” It’s about the real fish flopping into our boat that we simply throw off the deck. I am not suggesting the immediate deletion of all Facebook accounts, but perhaps we should start treating it more like a book and less like our face—something we can close and come back to in a day, as opposed to something that follows us around and thus defines who we are.
The epitome of iPhone absurdity is Snapchat, the mobile social network exclusively purposed for sending up to 10-second images (doesn’t it sounds strange attaching a duration to an image?), generally of oneself. Behind these fleeting images of the self, there is little truly resonating with us, besides the fact human faces now strike us as unusual, funny, even uncomfortable to look at. It’s time to flip the camera, perhaps even put it away. We cannot understand ourselves simply by looking at ourselves, just as we cannot understand our friends by looking at their pictures and “likes.” Stop looking down, and start looking up. Chances are, the world’s sitting across from you.