D(ev)ystopia

Don't get me wrong: I love technology.

My first memory of loving technology was my twelfth birthday. That day I unwrapped probably the best present my parents ever gave me: a Kodak Instamatic camera. The year was 1973, and for its day, this camera was a masterpiece of design. Film came in a cartridge that popped in easily. Flash photography was accomplished by snapping a cube on the top of the camera. I'm not certain on this point, but I believe it was completely mechanical, no battery required. It looked like this:
And it took pictures like this:
So yes, forty years before Instagram, all my pictures had that square grainy badly-exposed look that the kids are now using technology to create.

What I remember most about that first camera was the smell of it, particularly of the film cartridge when I tore open the bag it came in. There was something exciting about that chemical tang that filled my nostrils with the promise of technological magic. That smell, which came with every Instamatic film cartridge I used for the next eleven years, always promised excitement, though it did not always deliver. The photographs I took with that camera and its successor, a pocket Instamatic with telephoto, rarely came close to capturing the image in my mind's eye; and even graduating to an SLR in 1983 did little to change that, though digital photography has brought me much closer to that ideal. But one thing that has never yet failed to excite me is the smell of new technology.

Electronic devices have their own smell, distilled, I imagine, from plastic packaging mingled with circuitry. Unpacking stereo components, calculators, computers, televisions, VCRs, DVD players, cell phones--all of these things stimulate my senses and give me a tiny adrenaline rush. Getting into a newish car does the same thing. That smell speaks to me of cool new things I will be able to do by pushing buttons, turning knobs, aiming remotes, touching screens. I never get tired of it.

What has given me pause lately, however, is that maybe, just maybe, I've become a tad too connected. When I started my new job in September, I was presented with an iPad, which quickly supplanted my iPhone as my favorite device for reading news, completing crosswords, doing research on the internet, and, yes, playing games. (I also use it for its stated purposes of looking up students in the database, reading professional ebooks, and projecting slides for my classes, of course.) A couple of months ago, my school desktop computer was upgraded to a brand new iMac. Last week, I upgraded my phone to a 5S. I continue to use my laptop, an Acer I bought in 2010, for blogging and managing my music and picture libraries. I also use an antiquate iPod Classic I bought in 2007 to play music for my classes at school, though I will probably just turn my old 4S into an iPod Touch to streamline searching once Amazon sends it back to me (it was deemed "unacceptable" for their buy-back program). There are times, both at school and at home, when I am using (counting the iPhone) three computers simultaneously--and, if at home, watching television while I do it.

So: am I in tech heaven, or what?

The answer to that question is "what."

It's too much. I'm too connected. Hiking in both the Olympics and the Tetons last summer, it was refreshing to lose my 4G connection, and be unable to maintain my crossword streak. The only thing I could use devices for in those places was photography. That didn't keep me from wallowing in the tech as soon as we got out of either one of them, uploading pictures to Facebook, blogging, catching up on crosswords (though the streak was permanently broken), etc. But I am aware that, here in Portland, I am entirely too networked, too connected to technology. There are so many choices on the DirecTV receiver, on Netflix, at Amazon. Opportunities are wondrous: Amy and I were able, between last night and this morning, to research and book a Spring Break trip to New York City after researching dozens of flight and accommodation choices, making decisions far better-informed than we could have with the help of a travel agent. I can buy exactly the gear I need for our next expedition, getting the best price possible, thanks to Amazon and REIoutlet.com. Using the library's web site, I was able on Friday to put a hold on a music book I need for my next gig, saving me $30. We can find movie times for multiple theaters, make traffic-based decisions on routes into town, check weather for vacation destinations, keep in touch with hundreds of family members, friends, and acquaintances, all in seconds.

And still, it's too much.

I spend far too much time on these labor-saving devices: too many hours shopping around, skimming through mundane status updates, scanning headlines on Slate.com, doing crosswords on two different devices using different log-ins so I can artificially jigger my completion times (and yes, it does feel like cheating, but it's very cool to be near the top of the Masters list with all the other cheaters). All this activity keeps me from fully engaging in reading, writing, watching, and most importantly, interacting. I'm not alone in having this problem: it's not uncommon for everyone in the living room to have devices in their hands while we are ostensibly watching TV together. Thankfully, that doesn't happen during Uno games--not yet, anyway.

This growing awareness is teaching me that there is a thin line between Utopia and Dystopia. The ideal of being completely connected to the world, of having the total sum of human knowledge at one's beck and call, of having instant access to everything, comes at a price. However convenient, however magical, however realistic our virtual connections may be, they are ultimately illusory and unfulfilling. A world consisting solely of virtual pleasures might thrill and delight for a day or two, but it would be just a matter of time until we became aware of how empty it really was.

When I am teaching, I am utterly engaged with the children in my class. It's a total focus that permits no distractions. My phone my vibrate in my pocket, but I usually don't feel it. I turn to the iPad only to change the image I am projecting; other than that, all of me is wrapped up in interaction with the 25-35 students surrounding me.

This is the engagement I long for with all the people who matter to me. It is also the engagement that is impossible if I have a device in my line of sight. Admittedly, it doesn't take lovely-smelling electronics to create such a distraction: back in the days of newsprint, I disengaged from others easily with the Oregonian, National Geographic, or whatever novel I immersed myself in. But those were single distractions, and they remained the same when I put them down. Letting go of my iPhone, my iPad, my laptop, I run the risk of missing something. Perversely, keeping up on everything I might miss online means missing what's right in front of my nose.

So put down that phone, that tablet, that notebook. Take a step back from the world of pixels, and lay hold of the world of atoms. Engage. Let those gadgets be your servants. Tell 'em who's boss. And live.

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