THE BLOG

Life Without a Cellphone -- Part 3-B: Maslow Into Madness (Rabbit Holes)

08/07/2013 04:19 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2013

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The below might make more sense if you first at least skim Part 3-A of this series

SECTION B: TECHNOLOGY

A crude and probably mistake-filled history of modern communication that nonetheless is good enough for my purposes: a telegraph station in your town; telegraphs in certain offices; some phones somewhere; phones in many businesses; a phone in some homes (perhaps this overlaps on the timeline with the previous and/or next event, depends on who and where you are. In any case, social norms restricted its use); a pay phone on a street corner or a party line you share with your neighbors; touch-tone for ease of use--hurrah!--by now lets assume there is at least one individual phone and phone-line in every home and that they are being used liberally; a cordless phone so now phone can go with you almost anywhere in the house; an Alaskan mushroom that, when boiled, increases the cordless phone's base station's transmission capabilities so that now every cubic millimeter in your house is pregnant with said station's 2.4 ghz signals; a car phone as the phone begins to migrate with you outside the house and office (it seems that I forgot about walkie talkies and ham radio); an ever-decreasing-in-size mobile phone and ever-increasing improvements in reception so phone can be with you in ever more places (eventually seeping underground and floating into the high skies as well, joining you in shower and ocean thank you thank you Sony Xperia Z, not stopping till coverage is complete); wired headsets so now it is sometimes actually in your ear as you walk around; bluetooth headsets so now it is always in your ear; iPhone so now it is in both ears via earbuds and an ever-increasing-in-power computer with internet is sewn into pocket or superglued to palm; Google Glass so now an eye has been added to the mix and a further push is made to transmit audio direct to inner ear through bone.

The trajectory is clear, the inexorable march on brain treads silently onwards, bringing with each step yet more distraction, all in the name of convenience, all until cranium has been breached. And yet Google makes the ludicrous suggestion that its Glass won't be distracting because you will have to look up to access it, that it won't interrupt you because you'll be in control of when you use it. People can't resist reaching into pocket(book) for phone eight-thousand times a day but they'll resist a subtle eye movement? And perhaps that isn't distracting when compared to a future where information and your friends are just a thought or subconscious urge away. Oh, and how much more convenient will it be when we don't have to charge our phones?! When our lives are no longer dictated by a battery cycle because you can fuel your implant via routine food consumption!?! Perhaps you will hack 'settings' and have phone feed on your very fat!! What will life be like when there is no screen to look at, only an insertion of an image of a screen or just thoughts and ideas directly into your brain? When what is now Google Autocomplete one day autocompletes your thoughts, perhaps searching for what it thinks you want or need to know before you even know you want or need to know it and never ceasing to hammer enlightenment into you? When Blackberry's learning-enabled predictive texting evolves into a chip implant that texts back and forth with the chips inside your friends and colleagues, chips knowing their hosts so well that they can have witty repartee and set up meetings in your steads, with multiple parties simultaneously, filling you in as it all goes on or immediately after (choice! but we all know which option you will choose you impatient bastards you)? When all this is constantly claiming your attention what will be left for you?

This gloomy progression is not alarmist, just logical paranoia. If I am to be fair, however, the fallout may eventually be mitigated somewhat by technology itself: perhaps eventually the device will know what is important enough to interrupt you for ("impromptu lunch meeting with boss just made for now. go to cafeteria now.") and when it should wait and implant the arrangements in your brain and fill you up with transcripts during sleep (...with a special emphasis on the second five minutes and the way she said goodbye, e.g.)...and so on. So perhaps this will all be fine, perhaps eventually this will all be done so seamlessly that you won't even notice it, that it won't inconvenience or distract you one bit, with the computer simply running things behind the scenes.

Add to this, to the compuphone-in-pocket-marching-towards-brain, the increasing number of devices that can augment us, that might be implanted in or adorning our bodies below the neck--pacemakers, insulin pumps, heart-rate monitors, step counters in our sneakers, sleep and exercise trackers around our wrists--and you have a low-rate cyborg in the making (especially if we take into account the military's work on powered exoskeletons). I have no quarrel with any of these devices--though I do question the gamification of exercise. Don't we already have that? Isn't that called sport?--I just wonder if it is the best idea to either route these body devices through the phone or offer phone connectivity for them, as seems to be the trend in the works. I worry about the merger of devices, the convergence of functions--certain combinations more than others, especially those between anything internet/communication/foul-fowl-type-game and anything not--far more than I do about individual technological advances (though that distinction is sometimes hard to ferret out). Convergence, at first alluring, creeps into insidiousness...with each union quietly propagating yet more distraction and again anointing the device, giving it yet another championship belt and pounding away a little more of your faculties.

For example, if the phone disrupts sleep and might distract you at--or keep you from finding time for--the gym, is it the best idea to now run devices/functions that are supposed to improve those activities through the phone itself? I already see people at the gym distracted by all phone has to offer because iPod functionality has been rerouted to phones...what will it be like when their exercise routine, tracking, and coaching are fully onboard as well?

[Anecdote: A friend picked up my call during his Central Park jog. It was around the time we had planned to talk, as he thought he would be back home by then, but it was regarding nothing urgent and could easily have waited till his run was over and we both knew this. As such, when he told me he was still in the park, I asked him why he had his phone on him. He, correctly surmising that I was in the self-righteous mood, replied with what his tone of voice indicated to be his trump card: "my phone is on me because it has on it my music and my run-route tracker." Of course, his very answer is the very problem--he is carrying his phone because he put his music and his route-tracking app on it, because of convergence he has no choice (assuming, as I am for now, that music and route-tracking are actually needed for a run). In this case there are other devices--iPod and GPS--that could handle these tasks but he handed these tasks off to phone because why wouldn't you? It's easier. However, if there were no other devices that could handle these tasks, if they were, say, newly invented functions designed exclusively for phone, because why would you invent separate devices to host them, the effects would be the same and convergence would still bear the blame.

It should be clear by now that I think carrying the device--and so anything, like convergence, that leads to carrying the device--has serious downsides. That my friend is training himself to carry the device during jogs and in life in general, that he is increasing the importance of the device in his mind's eye, both by carrying it in another instance of his life and by putting more features he needs on it (the importance effect would be almost as great even if we were to drop my earlier "needs" assumption and instead consider these features to be purely wants), that the device, especially when on his person, breeds anxiety--all this we have discussed elsewhere and will leave be for now. The concern of more immediate interest, that he is guaranteeing himself distraction by device because there is zero chance he will use the device for only the purposes he specified, that convergence takes this toll as well, is what I would like to focus on. This concern should not come as revelation. I go through it below because, despite how bright-orange obvious it is to all of us in the abstract, judging by our actual interactions with the device, we--like my friend--lie to ourselves over and over in the real, pretending in instance after instance that it isn't so.

I'll begin with an amendment. A couple of paragraphs ago I explained what I thought wrong with my friend's trump card. Here is what I should have said: "he is carrying *and thinks he is carrying* his phone because he put his music and his route-tracking app on it."

What do I mean by this addition? Well, assuming, as I did, that he needs music and route tracking for a run, then convergence is the reason he has to carry his phone (if they are just wants then convergence is the reason he wants to carry his phone--but once "want" functions appear on phone they seem to mysteriously function as needs; post-shiny-icon-knighthood there is little practical difference between wants and needs). However, he also thinks, incorrectly, that he is truly carrying his phone only for the purposes he specified (judged either ahead of time based on subconscious desires or in retrospect based on actual use) and that his subsequent distraction by other phone features--if he even takes note of it at all, let alone thinks of it as a problem--is an accident. Further, even in the absence of music and route-tracking app, my friend probably would have found another reason to bring the device along for the jog, another need. And that need, just like the needs in our discussion, probably would not have been the sole reason he was bringing the device along.

In any case, once phone is in pocket, the possible roads leading to his predestined distraction are:

a) He left his ringer on on purpose--in which case he did not bring the phone with him for just his stated reasons, be they needs or wants (i.e. he also wanted to e.g stay connected), or music and route-tracking are not absolutely necessary for a run and his stated reasons were wants that served, at least in part and perhaps completely, as excuses to self-justify bringing phone along (and so satisfy ((perhaps subconscious)) desires to e.g. remain connected or not part from his little e-friend).

b) He left his ringer on by accident--this happens often enough that we should just consider it a standard risk of carrying your phone. In other words, you should know better; the phone might distract you even if you don't mean for it to do so and then your stated reasons for bringing the phone along, even if honest, are immaterial.

c) He turned his ringer off but was playing with his music or route-tracking app when my call came in--the obvious danger of using your phone for any one purpose: you cannot escape all other purposes phone has ready for you.

d) The ringer was turned off and he was not playing with his music or route-tracking app. However, as it is impossible to resist acting on the more-than-occasional "I need to check email. I need to photograph that tree"-type thought, he was bound to get suckered in by a call or a text or some other of the device's many tempting tricks--i.e. if device is on you, you cannot leave it alone for very long, it simply offers too much...so try not to find excuses to have device on you.

e) He wanted to check if his ringer was off...

No matter which of the above five roads (or any other like road you can think of, or any combo of the above roads--many of the things I said about one ringer scenario could easily take place during another) were actually taken, and one of them would definitely be taken, his thinking about what device would do for him during his run, despite being earnestly and honestly stated, would turn out to be incorrect. Further, as on some level he knew all about a), b), c), d), and e) before leaving home for his run, even if he did actually need music and route-tracking during his run, but even more so to the degree he didn't, he was lying to himself about why he was bringing his device.

Of course, it is likely that he never even thought about all this, at least not consciously, until I interrogated him; that he just grabbed his phone as automatically as he grabbed his keys on his way out the door. This whole melodrama takes place in our subconscious every other second but doesn't rise up to the conscious mind unless we are questioned by an annoying friend. That is when we say out loud what our brain constantly whispers: "oh no, yeah, but I need to bring my phone with me to XYZ because of ABC." And all this is made possible and exacerbated by convergence.]

Now pretend convergence happens again and again with ever-more devices/functions and affects ever-more activities...each addition to phone an additional reason to not only check phone but to have it on you in the first place, another gateway to an ever-ballooning myriad of distractions that might trap you, each addition itself augmenting this myriad, this growing myriad making phone more vital, giving it more gravity to attract yet more functions, each new function forcing you to carry/check phone yet more, each time carrying/checking phone another lesson to self that phone must always be on person, must do everything...

...and how much more important and distracting will phone be, as convergence steals onward, when--at first with manual backup systems of course--phone begins to take on functions you unquestionably depend on? As the other aforementioned body devices, medical implants, come on board and your very physical viability runs through phone? And then when all your vitals and bodily functions are monitored and moderated by the phone-cum-central-chip, will you ever be able to look away? Will you ever put device down? And finally, when all your physical and mental data are continuously uploaded by your chip to the great big chip in the sky, you part of some giant data-mining project that joins us all in constant group biometric study to ensure we are each always running as efficiently as possible--no need to worry, it will be an anonymous data-mining project...(we'll all be anonymous by then anyway, just terminals, our primary purpose to feed the illustrious sky-monitor with information)--will the-then-current-communication device then finally deserve its place in the most urgent category of Maslow's hierarchy? When everything runs through that device and it is implanted inside you and made out of biological material and you power it with your self, will it then truly be physiology?