Lilliputians On Parade

11/17/2011 08:02 am ET

The rallying cry of suburban parents used to be, "Go outside and play, and don't come home until it's dark." It had nothing to do with a desire for physical fitness and everything to do with status: Middle-class kids could go outside to ride their bikes or catch fireflies or play hopscotch with no fear of a pogrom, no grumbling hungry stomachs, no expectation of violence lurking behind the trimmed hedges. Kids who played outside after dinner were proof that their parents had made it; as with every preceding generation, we were expected to live in a larger world than our parents had.

Now UCLA has issued a study that says forget the neighborhood -- we don't even play in our own backyards anymore. We prefer the virtual landscape, and even that has shrunk from the relatively Cinerama-sized PC screen of yesteryear to the pocket-sized screen of the new iPhone, which had tomorrow's presbyopics standing in line for days for the chance to buy fun that's too small to share with anyone else.

The world gets so much bigger; that's always been the promise of technology. We'll be able to chat with folks in Nepal, learn from medical researchers in Bangkok, meet the loves of our lives even though she's in Dubuque and he's in Dubai. We live in an ever-expanding culture, as anyone who's ever completed a Google search can attest, even if the last 23 screens on any given search are pretty much useless. The brave new world is big, and big appeals to a nation whose previous infatuations include cars with mammoth fins, double-burgers with triple-cheese and a bathtub of fries, and breast implants. Life without geographical boundaries appeals to our pioneer spirit.

But in fact the world of technology gets so much smaller. I understand that movie theaters are a challenge, between the people who untwist noisy wrappers just as the star-crossed lovers align, and the ones who think that the rest of us actually benefit from their whispered running commentary. Is the answer for every single one of us to be watching his or her own movie on a personalized screen that guarantees we will miss everything that happens around us? [And I don't care how good your eyes are. Some cinematography demands a real screen.]

Now I love technology as much as the next guy does, particularly the cunning little laptop camera that will enable us to see our freshman daughter as well as talk to her this coming year. I like the iPod I inherited when said daughter won a better one in a raffle, and I love "mom's list," a set of songs she customized for me. I write on a computer, and I never miss the days when cut-and-paste was a literal exercise and not a couple of icons at the top of my screen. I may not be an early adopter, but I'm no Luddite, either.

Here's what I don't love, though: Increasingly tiny inventions that draw us away from the real world on the premise that we're leaving it behind for something better. Lilliputian devices no longer merely interrupt direct communications between human beings -- more and more they replace that contact, or fill up so much of our time that it's hard to tell what's the text and what's the distraction. Like any good addicts, we have quickly convinced ourselves that we cannot live without the substance we abuse. Think I'm exaggerating? Try getting your high-powered friend to leave his or her Blackberry at home next time you go out to dinner together.

Convenience is great, but isolationism is not, and isolationism is exactly what this new generation of toys breeds in all of us, despite all the talk of endless vistas. We can customize our news so that we never stumble onto something we didn't know we wanted to know, the way we did back in the days when we paged through newspapers. We can customize entertainment and shopping and ring-tones; each of us gets to be in control of a personal media empire at a time when we feel in control of so little else in the universe. Problem is, the downsizing of our lives into gadgety little bits comes at a price -- conversation, reflection, unhampered imagination, a little non-productive down-time, which is often the most productive time of all. We're forgetting that it's possible to be still or silent. We're starting to look uncomfortably like those zombies in the classic '1984' television ad for, yep, Apple.

I was pleased when my daughter's high school issued a cell-phone ban on the grad-night bus, which took 85 girls around Los Angeles for an all-nighter of music and food and fun, a last fling after six years of always being together. Another mother denounced the edict as "fascistic," and wondered how the school could insist on such a rule when the whole point of high school was to produce independent-minded girls who knew how to think for themselves, thank you very much.

I didn't mind, not one bit. I thought -- go out and play, and don't come home, well, until it's light.