My father is 90 years old — a member of the Greatest Generation, iconic among millennials for courage, stability, wisdom and their connection to a past that maybe never existed in America. In real life, however, Dad is somewhat blunt in his distrust of gadgets and technology. He often declared that his favorite button on the television set was the OFF button. He was, surprisingly, an early adopter of computer technology and made use of the ability to self-publish and distribute his weekly analytical newsletter as early as the late 1980s. But amidst the clutter on his desk was a sign with an enormous hammer that said “Hit Any Key To Continue.”
I am also ambivalent to the technological wizardry present in our lives, but my suspicion centers less on the physical devices at hand than upon their dominance of our time and attention. I believe “connectivity” is actually disconnecting us from reality and from ourselves.
It began when I realized that telephone voicemail was the same sort of barrier and gatekeeper that my secretary had been. When executives were unceremoniously dispossessed of our offices and moved into the cubicle farms in the 1980s, we also lost our human minions. In their place came the computerized voices that we were bound to check for our messages every hour. The term “telephone tag” came into use. It became easier to walk down the hallway and to lean into somebody else’s cube to ask a question than it was to leave endless, useless “I got your message,” messages. You see? Voicemail, supposedly an advancement in the workplace, was actually a barrier to communication and problem-solving.
Shortly after voicemail, of course, portable telephones arrived and everyone had to have one of those! They became status symbols first, and then so ubiquitous that the coin-operated public telephone is now a thing of the past. On the one hand, a businessperson is now always on-call — which, before I retired, I considered a heinous invasion of my privacy. On the other hand, though, all the computerized menus of “customer service” (there’s an oxymoron!) choices delay and distract and ultimately create a barrier between the customer and the business. They aren’t really communicating at all!
The same is happening to us in our private (or not-so-private) lives: All of our games and apps and GPS and social networks surround us in a cloud of data. We even see visuals of this in the commercials for the various providers — those spinning circles of devices enclosing a family in a glowing cocoon of electrons for $99.99 a month … or whatever.
That cocoon of data around us is both barrier and trap. It traps outgoing information and profiles anything individual or important — your whereabouts, your card numbers, your friends’ contacts, your preferences, habits, purchases. It is data-mining. It also reflects your own preferences back at you and prevents anything new from getting in. If you’ve ordered a blue sweater, it will only show you blue sweaters in the future.
Dad may be right. Turning it off, disconnecting from the devices and the time-sink of all these toys and all this data may be the way we learn to reconnect with our own humanity and with each other. Hit any key to continue.