My friend called me last week and said that she was at an editor's lunch in New York City. When her colleague left the table for the restroom, my friend immediately reached for her smartphone to check texts, email, and her Twitter feed. Then she stopped herself. She put her phone down, lifted her head, and looked around. And she saw something interesting: All of the single people in the restaurant (those sitting alone) were either on their phones, Blackberrys, iPads, or laptops. No one was looking around. Not a single person.
It dawned on my friend this is the new normal. No one looks around anymore. No one looks up from their screens. And although they live in a big city -- THE Big Apple, in fact -- the people around her live in the small world of their own screens. They meet no one new. They don't ask for directions on the street and they don't talk to people near them in the coffee shop. They're busy with their time-consuming technologies.
My wife and I were talking about this the other day and we realized that no one knows anyone's phone number any more. There are thousands of digits in any given iPhone, but not a single seven-digit number in anyone's head. My mother-in-law doesn't know her own daughters' numbers. I don't know my own sister's. Basically, why memorize something that a cell phone already knows?
And although I send hundreds of emails each month, I don't know anyone's real or electronic addresses. I have no idea how to send a letter to any of my five siblings because, address-wise, I don't know where they live. I literally don't.
And speaking of location, Nokia did a study four years ago that showed that a quarter of the world's population can't get around their own home towns or cities without GPS units, and the percentage of map-crippled individuals has to be growing. Many people literally don't know where they are or how to get anywhere around them. The art and relationship of map, navigation, and spatial memory is quickly being lost.
If using our brains in complicated ways, if memorization and challenging recall help to stave off Alzheimer's and the effects of Parkinson's, why are we allowing for these trade-for-brain technologies in every area of life? Why can college students not use a real dictionary or thesaurus? Why would I use a phone to do simple multiplication? And should we eventually have everything taught to us via 140-character life-lesson-text-messages?
What I'm really asking is: How did we get here? Why is our society the way it is now?
Well, because things are easy -- easy on the brain, easy on the memory, easy on effort. Why try when you don't have to try? Why work at anything? Wait, why work at all?
There's an app that allows two iPhones to "bump" and trade digits so the owners don't even have to type in any numbers. Sounds good. Maybe, pretty soon, no one will even have to take beginning math. Maybe they won't have to even know numbers anymore. What comes after the number 17? Who cares?
And with instant messaging there's no need to know how to spell or use the conventions of grammar (hoo cayrs how i spill my tixts? itz not thit impertint too spill rite ennymor ennyway K, wtf lol gtg). It's easier to email. It's easier to text. It's easier to use the GPS on the dashboard.
Willa Cather wrote in 1927, "Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things." In 1927? What would Cather think now?
An interesting thought to ponder. And what's next?
For more by Peter Brown Hoffmeister, click here.
For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.