Above: “Vision Catcher,” by Leslie Dill (1995)
Siri is making me nervous. Ever since the latest updates on my I-phone, she has begun to speak without being summoned, without being spoken to. I will be in a real conversation with an actual person in the room while my phone is locked and lying on a table and, suddenly, Siri perks up and says, “Sorry, I didn’t get that.” The logical explanation for this phenomenon is that she “thinks” she “hears” her name being called in my speech, but it is unnerving.
It’s not surprising that a creeping paranoia about Big Brother, with agents listening, webcams watching, tracking devices following, and drones surveilling has been on the rise in a society that has begun to resemble a dystopian novel. Little wonder that more and more Americans have begun to distrust not only our leaders and institutions, but also the advanced technology that has allowed Big Brother into our lives. In the beginning, we willingly, if unwittingly, exchanged our privacy for security and convenience, but now we’re finding that the exchange has hardly brought peace of mind. Just the opposite, in fact.
So far, I have been realistic about the risks of my own deal with the information devil while still keeping my personal paranoia at bay, but I have to admit that this sudden Siri intrusion has given me pause, not so much because of yet another invasion of privacy it might indicate, but because I think I have reached the absolute “last straw” of digital demands on my time and attention. There are only just so many beeps, burps, rings, alarms, bulletins, news flashes, ads, reminders, texts, and tweets one can be possibly process in a day without losing all track of time and developing a permanent case of ADD!
Now don’t get me wrong: I love my I-phone — and my I-pad, and my I-Mac, and my e-reader, and even Alexa. As a writer, I was doing research and submitting copy to newspapers and magazines on-line back in the early 1980s; as a teacher/professor, I have been creating lesson plans, working on spreadsheets, posting grades — and yes, uncovering student plagiarism — for most of my professional life. And I am grateful that my work in journalism and education enabled me, indeed forced me, to develop my computer skills and to achieve a level of comfort in cyberspace that most members of my generation have not. Now, as I get older and begin to envision a time when my physical activity in “the real world” might be limited, I grow even more grateful for the information, services, connections and conveniences available to me through the internet and digital communications.
The smart phone, of course, is the epitome of that access to the world. Having been through both natural and man-made disasters myself, and having been solely responsible for the welfare of others in times of distress, I especially appreciate what a lifeline a cell phone can be. During recent years while I was caring for my Mother through multiple strokes, navigating her evacuation during a hurricane, handling the repair and sale of her home afterward, and eventually getting her relocated nearby, I had to have my cell phone on and with me 24 hours a day out of necessity. Oddly, though, now that that intense period is over, I find that I have continued to have my phone on, with me during the day and by my bed at night. Is this simply force of habit, or is it that such a prolonged period of stress and isolation brought on by total subjugation to someone else’s life and needs relegated what was left of my own to the 4.7” screen on my I-phone? I think I may have to turn my phone off so I can finally get my old real life back.
Though it is not yet listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as an official psychiatric illness, there is now a common term for extreme reliance on one’s cell phone: nomophobia. That’s short for “no mobile phone phobia,” meaning a fear of being without one’s phone or without network coverage. More and more is being discovered about the very real dangers of an unhealthy dependence on electronic devices, about the re-wiring of our brains, the shortened attention spans, the disruption of sleep patterns, and the demise of personal relationships that result from constant digital devotion. In short, it appears that cell phones may actually be addictive.
We know they can be toxic, especially in today’s angry, violent, politically-divided world. Social media, once a source of entertainment, humor, and collective bonding, has been corrupted by malevolent hackers and purveyors of misinformation, to the detriment and dumbing down of a gullible public. Almost everything that instantly goes viral is soon debunked as some sort of a hoax. Twitter, once a network for activist voices and alternative points of view, is now a vehicle for insults, taunts, and egotistical bullies; facebook, once a platform where grannie got to see her grandchildren and friends shared photos of their vacations, is now a place where others are ridiculed, shamed, or cruelly “unfriended.” There are no rules promoting honest, civil discourse nor any real penalties for flouting the limits of decent — dare I even say “legal” — behavior. And every time we, whether through righteous indignation or our own snarky impulses, respond or repeat without careful consideration, we further infect ourselves, our society, and our country with a dangerous toxicity.
So, before you get hit by a bus because your face is buried in your cell phone, or you drive off the road or fall off a cliff while taking a selfie, or before all the people who really matter in your life have been alienated by your rude inattention and your thoughtless retorts, maybe it’s time to start the new year with a digital detox.
Besides, Siri could use a vacation.