Reading at LitCrawl, Samovar Tea Lounge, San Francisco, Oct. 18, 2014.
In the late ’80s, I worked as a sales rep for a company called ComTech that sold cell phones and pagers. The phones weighed about 25 pounds and nobody wanted to buy them. It was such a frustrating struggle I couldn’t take it and quit after three weeks. From there, I’m trying to recall the very first time I heard that distinctive, booming voice of the AOL guy tell me, “YOU’VE GOT MAIL.” I can’t quite remember it specifically, but somehow, from that day on, everything changed. At this point, it feels like we’re all, in essence, praying to the great sacred temple of Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California countless times a day. I could be wrong, but I think the internet might be more popular than Jesus.
I have a love/hate relationship with technology. Not to be one of those people forever waxing poetic about the olden days, but I grew up during the time when our TV had rabbit-ears for antennae, and there were three main channels plus PBS. When I was really young, we had a rotary phone with no answering machine. I read books, played outside, and watched the Flintstones and the Brady Bunch after school everyday. If I needed to know about something, I looked it up in the encyclopedia, or went to the library and used the Dewey Decimal System. That was enough. I was happy, and times were simple. We got a color TV with a remote control when I was eight, and cable when I was 15. That was a huge deal, and super exciting, because I got to watch MTV around the clock, back when MTV actually ran music videos.
Whenever she interviews someone, Oprah always asks “what do you know for sure?” What I know for sure is that I’m very glad there was no such thing as the internet when I was a teenager. The world at large has been spared what would have likely been endless posts about how much I loved Tom Petty, what I was learning at my guitar lessons, and confessions of infatuation and devotion alternating with bitter gripes about Jesse, my boyfriend from high school who thought he was Billy Idol, came from a huge Mormon family, and was still seeing his old girlfriend on the side. I still remember how he used to freak out and tell me never to say “Oh my God” in front of his parents because it upset them.
Recently a friend and I were discussing how Facebook and social media can make people crazy and obsessive, and the fact that there’s always the somewhat constant looming question of what’s “enough.” Will you inadvertently offend and alienate everyone you’ve ever known with some random post or comment that you really hadn’t even thought much about to begin with? Will the things you find interesting slowly and quietly drive your friends and family off into obscurity? It’s oddly invasive that the ticker reports to the entire universe what your comment was on a friend’s post, what photos you like, and what you’re listening to on Spotify. You can also watch someone’s life implode like a slow motion trainwreck. How many “friends” sit and watch, like voyeurs behind the scenes gleefully witnessing what seems to be a tragic movie plot unfold in real time?
On a sociological level, it’s fascinating to see what people choose to share about their lives, how often they post, what they eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also how adamant some people are about sharing and defending their over-the-top religious and political views—their personal version of The Truth. I’m completely amazed at the amount of energy this must all take. Maybe there should be a law, “separation of church and web.”
I wonder…what if Jesus was on Facebook? What would he post? “Turned water into wine today,” “turned a stone into bread,” or “brought Lazarus back to life.” Instead of twelve apostles, maybe he would have twelve thousand. How many “likes” would he have on his posts, and would there be endless arguments and bickering in the comments? Without a doubt.
There are people who post ten times a day about how terrible Facebook is; how it is a complete waste of time, and invasion of privacy. If it’s so awful, really you should probably just quit Facebook. Apparently, it really isn’t cool anymore anyway, and hasn’t been for quite awhile because everyone’s parents, friends of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are on it, spying, being nosy, and getting into everyone’s business.
What was life like before social media? When you’re having an experience, how much time do you spend thinking about what kind of angle you’ll shoot the photo you plan to post? Then once you post it, how many times do you check to see how many people “liked” it, commented on it, acknowledged it? How sad are you if something you post goes totally ignored? Maybe you just don’t care. But then, maybe you do. How much joy does all that suck out of whatever the experience was in the first place?
Lately a lot of people have been posting videos all about how very sad it is that everyone is so busy staring down at their phones that they’re missing out on life and relationships happening around them. There are now actual organized movements like “99 Days of Freedom,” where people go offline for a 99-day social media/Facebook detox. As of this writing, according to their website, 37,056 people are “enjoying freedom.”
“ReStart,” the nation’s first real-life rehab center for technology addiction opened in 2009. At their Heavensfield Retreat Center in the State of Washington, you can get help for video game addiction, internet addiction, smart phone addiction, and tech addiction in general. They have a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google+ page. One of their taglines is “Social Media: Update Less, Connect More.”
The major cruise lines are spending millions to make wifi on their ships faster, and apparently this is a major selling point. I’m not a “cruise person,” but really, shouldn’t people just be enjoying themselves on vacation and not staring into the abyss of the interwebs, worrying about how fast their vacation photos are uploading for all their followers to see?
How far will technology go, and at what point will we have had enough? Do you really need a car that drives and parks itself? How many remotes do you really want to have to work your TV? And how high of resolution does your screen need to be able to enjoy a show or movie? Do you really need a curved TV screen? Is Google Glass really just creepy? At what point does everyone get a chip implanted in their brain at birth and we all just call it a day?
I refuse to own a Kindle. Recently there was a book I wanted to check out from the library which was only available as an e-book. I was so bummed, and thought to myself, “OH NO, here we go…it’s the beginning of the end.” Hopefully I will be long gone by the time they stop printing real books. If I’m reading, I want to hold a book in my hand. Turn the pages, feel the paper. I want to make notes in the margins if I feel like it, and physically flip the pages back to reread something. Somehow I feel like my brain absorbs information better seeing it in print.
I love handwritten letters, old printed programs, menus, brochures, and postcards. Somehow it feels like the humanity of our communication is getting lost. Generation X and their predecessors will keep boxes of old love letters…what will the young people of today keep? Will they print out their texts to save in a special box of mementos to be treasured and read in their later years?
Some things are just plain strange. Holograms of performances by Michael Jackson and Kurt Cobain are especially bizarre, kind of like modern-day versions of Disneyland’s “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.” Are we all destined to be kept “alive” somehow with no personal control over whatever script or actions someone decides to assign to us in our post-earthly-life hologram form? Who owns the rights to us after we’re gone? There’s got to be a lawyer somewhere who specializes in this.
When the doors to communication and expression are open, they’re open to everyone with access to the internet. Perceived power can be intoxicating. Everyone has their own personal stage, their own personal soapbox. The internet tells us how to think, what to think, what to like, acknowledge, what’s cool and what’s uncool.
Too much to choose from can give a constant feeling of anxiety…of somehow being behind on everything. There’s even an official term for this: “FOMO,” or “Fear of Missing Out.” In the 80s, Bruce Springsteen had a song, “57 Channels and Nothing’s On.” Try 1,049 channels. There’s GOT to be something on. But mostly, there’s really not. Netflix binge watching has become an obsession. Entire seasons of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones in a single weekend.
It feels like we’re becoming a civilization obsessed with instant gratification, with everyone in a constant state of agitation over messages sent, received, status updates and photos acknowledged, liked, or not liked. We’re becoming desensitized to our current very public style of correspondence and communication—what used to be privately shared in e-mail or a phone conversation is now out for the world and everyone you’ve ever known to see.
Unfortunately anyone without e-mail, a computer, or cell phone nowadays is an instant hopeless dinosaur, sadly destined to be “out of it” forever. Staring into the glowing screen of an iPhone, iPad, laptop, or soon-to-be-antiquated desktop computer, we’re seeking love, validation, approval, identity. The gratification is instant and addictive, like a drug.
Sometimes it’s all just too much and I long for the sweet, simple days of three channels plus PBS and a rotary phone. My true moments of pure joy have nothing to do with technology. Sometimes I fantasize about dropping my computer and iPhone off a cliff—or rather, donating them to my local e-waste center—and going “off the grid,” as they say…living on a mountaintop somewhere for a year or maybe forever, communing with a spirit greater than myself, and writing about it all on an old Royal typewriter. Someday maybe I will.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to wonder how so many people are giving up their landline phones to rely solely on cell phones when the audio quality isn’t much better than the first-ever recording of Alexander Graham Bell from April 15th, 1885, preserved for posterity by Smithsonian researchers via optical technology: