THE BLOG

Downward Mobility: Tech Toys and Society

08/05/2010 05:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A few weeks ago, I picked up my wife after work and told her my folks were just killed in a head-on. "Just a sec, hon," she replied. "Someone just friended me on Facebook." So, I got back on the Foothill Freeway and waited patiently while she massaged her mobile device.

OK, OK. So mom and dad didn't actually go down in some fiery crash. And I never posed such a question. But, my wife is having an affair with her Blackberry. After all, he has everything -- smarts, good looks, money, fame ... and a nice package.

Hey listen, I'm far from alone. Chicks and dudes the world over are experiencing the same heartbreak that has befallen me.

Look, I know how, as early as 1600, studies in electricity were making their mark on mankind. And how the industrial revolution spawned profound change. And how the advent of radio and TV began to seize our senses with unchecked vigor. But this "recent" acceleration into communications convergence is downright mind-blowing.

Gartner Research reported that mobile phone sales reached 1.2 billion units last year alone. Yes, 1.2 billion units sold from Minnesota to Madagascar. The Pew Internet Project reported that 75 percent of teens and 93 percent of adults ages 18-29 now have a cell phone (though the rate of growth in youth ownership far outweighs that of adults). Considering there are 6.8 billion people on the planet, you do the math.

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 for a few minutes, so can you watch the freeway for me while my eyes are on my iPhone?" Think I'm kidding? How about the eighth-grader from Long Island who recently 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 Blackberry, RAZR, iPhone or Droid? Answer: nothing good. 500 million of them head to the dump each year. That also means five hundred million pounds of unrecycled material goes to waste. Considering escalating mobility sales and diminishing life expectancies (currently 1.5 years), this already vast wasteland will continue to widen.

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

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

Five 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 cell phone.

People spend over 700 billion minutes per month talking on cell phones. The average mobile device user works 15 percent more each day -- first using the device at 7:10 am and last using it at 10 pm. Even those annoying little ringtones have amounted to a 6 billion dollar industry. Ultimately, thanks to the cell phone, the oft-mentioned digital divide between the haves and the have nots is but a thing of the past.

Upon first blush, we cannot help but to be amazed by this leap. And surely most of us have thanked our lucky stars there's a smartphone by our side when the car breaks down or the expectant mother is on her way to the hospital. Or your bud pings you about the latest chapter in the Lindsay Lohan chronicles.

Yet we must also wonder whether we might be too busy looking down to look up and around. The world has increasingly become a place that exists in our palms and not in our eyes. That said, one can only wonder what the world will look like through the eyes of a new generation of youth.

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 resistive touch screens to proximity sensors to thousands of ready-made apps, all this gadget and widget gusto continues to further fortify us with no end in sight.

Or does it?

While each new bell or whistle makes its way into the milieu, our evening stars and our partner's eyes seem to get 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 bad my penmanship had become in absence of a need to actually write anything anymore.

On the darker side, 25 percent of traffic accidents involve cell phone 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. Only one state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20 percent while 32 states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25 percent. 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 30 million Americans suffer some form of low-back pain. Even though we're living amidst a mobile universe, one in ten of us are hunched, crunched or bunched up 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. So, amidst all this self-proclaimed acceleration associated with tech toys, I actually believe significant de-evolution is afoot. Hey, just look at Glenn Beck.

How many families have quality dinner time together anymore? Decades ago, mine did, nearly every night, and without distraction of any kind. Today, however, these relationships surely suffer technological mania. Yes, there are far more factors worthy of consideration, but according to the US Census Bureau, in 1900 the rate of divorce was approximately 10 per 10,000. Today that number has risen to 100 per 10,000.

With all this fuss over a floundering U.S. public education system and more than 25 perent of students dropping out of high school -- 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. That's a long way from passing a note to that cute girl in the back row.

In the end, I love my wife more than anything. But when she plugs into her Blackberry and blacks out on our conversations, 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. The Terminator certainly could not have been any more intuitive about technology's crush on the human condition when he uttered that now infamous maxim, "I'll be back."