For most of the first decade of the 21st century, I lived in a small town on the coast of northern California. The nearest big city, San Francisco, is a five hour drive away. The area is home to the largest trees in the world, the famed Coast Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens). Locals like to say that they live behind ‘the Redwood curtain,’ meaning that they often feel like the rest of the world has forgotten about them.
Being small, remote, and well off the beaten path, we were always at least a few years behind urban trends, especially technological and social trends. I didn’t purchase my first cell phone until late 2006, seven or eight years after most urbanites had bought their first one. Being on the tech cutting edge wasn’t important for me or for most of my friends.
To assess the impact that new technologies like smart phones, laptops, and tablets were having on society, I relied on reading news accounts and blogs. It wasn’t until I moved to Portland, Oregon in late 2008 and then Seattle in 2009 that I witnessed firsthand the influence that the tech revolution was having on society and culture itself.
The adjustment back to city living after ten years of small town life was difficult enough, but coming to grips with the our new tech crazy world was, and is, really difficult. Here are a few anecdotes relating to my experiences.
There was a wonderful little cafe a few short blocks from my apartment in Portland. They had plenty of comfortable seating, served good coffee, and played music that was not too antithetical to my tastes. But after a couple of visits, I stopped going there. It had a lifeless feel. Some days it would be full of customers , with 20 to 25 mostly young people sitting and drinking coffee. Problem was, everyone was sitting alone at their table and nobody was talking. Furthermore, no one was reading books, magazines or newspapers. Everyone was either on their laptop or smartphone. It didn’t just feel weird, it felt somewhat creepy.
When I moved to Seattle, the scene at every cafe and coffeehouse I visited was exactly the same as described above. No talking, no reading- just texting, web browsing and updating social media. Oh yes, everyone also was drinking from disposable cups, even though they sat at the tables for hours. Starbucks had taught them well.
Technology has a way of inexorably worming itself into every facet of our lives and into every physical space as well, even those spaces which were hitherto considered off-limits to phones, computers, and such. Those physical spaces include the commons, i.e. parks, museums, sidewalks, and bus stops, private enterprises like bars, clubs, cafes, and retail stores, and of course, our homes.
During the two years I lived in Seattle, the city’s largest, most famous and well-established bookstore moved from its location near the waterfront to a different neighborhood which happened to be much closer to my apartment. I was quite excited about this and looked forward to the opening. The new store, not surprisingly, lacked the character and ambience of the old one. The original store had a confusing layout, almost chaotic in a way, which encouraged browsing and serendipity.
The new location had a second floor which contained some of my favorite sections and which also offered a small amount of respite from the noise of the first floor, with it cafe, music and check-out. There was a nice wooden table which the store owners had thoughtfully placed near the stacks. This table, I naively supposed, was where we could sit for a few minutes with a book pulled from the shelves. One afternoon, I saw, to my dismay, that the table was filled with a half dozen students and hipsters who had set up their laptops on the table and were busily working, chatting, and giggling. So much for book browsing. Even though there was a spacious cafe at the bottom of the stairs, with comfortable seats, good food, and free wifi which was built specifically to cater to these customers, they wanted to take the one space in the store that I thought was reserved for book readers. I complained to management, but to no avail.
I had finally come to terms with the fact that coffeehouses were essentially lost, that they had metamorphosed into something unimaginable to me even ten or fifteen years ago. They now resemble something more akin to what are known as co-working spaces. They have become just a venue for people to plug in their wifi enabled devices. The cup of coffee that is purchased is simply the price of admission for the table, electrical outlet, and air conditioning. Well, what about bars? At the end of the day, people leave their computers at home and go sit in the dark bar to have a drink and share their troubles with a friend, right?
It just so happened that I lived next to one of Seattle’s better dive bars, a small and dark place, but one with a bit of style and which served some of Seattle’s best craft cocktails. With no televisions, great drinks, moody lighting and a decent bar, it was perfect for me. But then management decided, on their own or under pressure from customers, to install wifi. Soon enough, the techies started coming in and setting up at the tables with their laptops. Given the small, intimate space and the low lighting, a few people turing on their fifteen- or seventeen- inch screens had the effect of completely transforming the bar’s atmosphere. One night I was sitting at the bar when a 20-something girl sat next to me and promptly threw down her macbook on the bar and turned it on. We sat only inches apart, so I was forced to bathe in the bright glare of her screen. It was like someone had brought in their television. I protested vehemently to the bartender. He was sympathetic, but ultimately did nothing. Once they installed wifi, and advertised it, the game was up.
I often went to have dinner at a wonderful restaurant in my neighborhood. I almost always sat at the bar to eat and occasionally another solo diner would sit next to me. I recall one evening when a gentleman who looked to be around 60 pulled up a chair beside me. We immediately began conversing and found out we had some things in common. He was interesting and a good conversationalist, but just when the discussion got rolling, he pulled out his smartphone and said, “excuse me.” He then began playing with the phone and surfing the web. His unapologetic and swift cutoff of our talk seemed harsh, unnecessary and perplexing. He might as well have said, “I’m done with you now. Fuck off.” Indeed, it was a number of experiences like this that convinced me that I was better off not even attempting to start a conversation with other solo diners.
At my job, I had the opportunity to see the effect of smartphones on people whom I interacted with on a daily basis. One young woman was a new nurse who had recently graduated. Unlike most of her peers, she was a book lover and I had even bumped into her a couple of times at the used book store. Whenever I came upon her in the dining hall, she glanced and smiled at me over the cover of the book she was reading. And then one day she bought a iphone. From that day on, I never again saw her reading a book. Whereas before she always noticed me immediately when I walked into the dining hall, now her attention was so focused on the phone that she wasn’t aware of anything happening around her.
After my boss bought her first iphone, it never left her hand. The first day she brought it to work, , she walked around the facility, visiting every department, ostensibly to share pictures of her recent trip to a southern state for a conference, but in truth to show off her new toy. She insisted on showing me dozens of boring photos on the phone. She knew they were boring but she couldn’t resist sharing her wonderful new gadget.
As bad as this situation is in America, in Asia it’s even worse. A few days ago, a local paper ran a piece from Agence France Press about internet addiction in Singapore. Psychiatrists in Singapore want the government there to join other countries in recognizing internet addiction as a mental disorder. According to the article, 87% of the population of Singapore own a smartphone. When you discount the under-5 and over 75- age groups, that basically means that everyone in Singapore owns a smartphone.
People are reporting ‘text neck’ or ‘iNeck’ pain according to an anesthesiologist at Singapore General Hospital. Many people have their heads lowered all day while using their phones, even while crossing the street and queuing. A number of Asian countries have set up treatment centers for young addicts. The article goes on to state that China may have as many as 24 million young internet addicts and already has set up 300 internet addiction centers, which , given the figures above, is way too few. Welcome to our ‘Brave New World.’