Tag Archives: technozombies

The empty promises of technology

Driving home recently, I observed that  big, sleek new techno-gadget stores have been opening throughout the city almost weekly. The market for smart phones, tablets, phablets, and  laptops along with  all of their accessories is red- hot and shows no signs of slowing down. People just can’t get enough! Businessmen, housewives, teachers, students, teenagers, and parents with young  children in tow browse the stores, looking for the latest, hottest, hippest, and trendiest new device. No child is too young now to start playing on smart phones. “If they are old enough to walk and talk, they are old enough to have a smart phone,” is the new thinking among parents. Microwave radiation? Decreased attention spans? Addiction to games?  Diminished interest in books? Squashed imaginations?  Who cares!

What will be the outcome of this multi-media saturation, particularly on the young? A couple of weeks ago, I started reading “The Dumbest Generation,” by Mark Bauerlein (2008) . With meticulous research and citing  hundreds of studies, Mr. Bauerlein demolishes the arguments put forth by technocrats that  Millennials, who have abandoned reading as a leisure activity, are doing well academically and can learn everything they need to know through computers and video games. The academic and governmental studies  do not support the pollyannish claims by the technocracy that book reading is overrated as a foundation of education and that we (the adults) need not be concerned with the lack of interest shown in books  by teens and twentysomethings.

“The Dumbest Generation” is full of eye-popping statistics and charts. It resoundingly reaffirms what I have been observing for many years: that kids no longer want to read and are cut off from nature.

Bauerlein says, “The 10-year-old’s bedroom has become, as Kaiser puts it, a ‘multi-media center.’ Children leave the dinner table, which is often accompanied by network news, reruns of Seinfeld ,and other 6 P.M. fare, and head off to their rooms to turn on their own shows or crank up iTunes while poring over some homework. Bored with that, they can check a MySpace forum, or play Mortal Kombat, or look at school pictures. The long division exercises await while the computer dings a new email coming through, the cell phone buzzes with a new message, and Toomani comes on in half an hour. They never need exit their bedrooms doors, and in most households, parents won’t interrupt them. For 55 percent of the eight-to 10-year olds , parents don’t lay down any rules for TV. For older teens, only 5 percent have parents who set limits on the video games they can play. The private access continues outside the home too, with 55 percent of eight- to 18-year olds taking a handheld video game player with them, and 65 percent carrying a portable music player.”

The author goes on to analyze how school districts around the country (and around the world) have jumped on the ‘technology is more important than books’ bandwagon. Schools have borrowed money from wherever they can and siphoned money from other areas of their budgets to hard-wire the schools for the latest in technology, including computer labs, wi-fi and even laptops for the students. Administrators, principals and bureaucrats do all this in the name of education, in the naive hope that this technology will make students more ‘excited’ about learning and improve their literacy skills and test scores. The results show otherwise, but nevertheless the technocracy presses on.

In my school, we have a small library and a computer lab next to it. Which do you think students gravitate to? When class finishes and the student needs to wait 30 minutes for the parent to pick him up, does he grab a book from the library and sit down to read, or does he go to the computer lab to play video games? The answer is obvious. The books look pretty on the shelf, but they are unread and unappreciated. The school administrators allow the students to play games as long as they want, with no supervision. Nobody takes responsibility for the student who has time to kill, and the young ones especially get hypnotized for hours.

Ever since I was a young boy, I have been suspicious of machines and technology. Perhaps it’s some ancient Druidic blood running through my Norwegian/Viking veins, but my greatest pleasures growing up were always found in nature and in books. My fondest memories of childhood are the simple, direct, and intimate connections I had with the natural world- swimming in my neighbors pond, exploring the local creeks, catching frogs, climbing trees, lying on my back and counting stars, rolling on the grass, collecting wild berries in the woods, scrambling over giant boulders on the Potomac River, jumping into piles of leaves, sledding down hillsides, bodysurfing in the Atlantic on a hot summer day, making snowballs, and exploring caves. None of these activities requires a machine or gadget.

When computers started appearing in the 80s and became widespread in the 90s, I felt a palpable and growing unease. “I don’t like where all this is headed,” I said to my girlfriend at the time. When I read some of the breathless and hyperbolic rantings of the techno geeks in zines like Mondo 2000 and Wired in the mid to late 90s, I became VERY worried. These pasty-faced, pale-skinned and flabby-muscled computer geeks were telling me that the transhuman world was arriving quickly and that I had better get used to the idea. Their ideas and arguments sounded, and continue to sound, absurd to me, and yet a forceful response to the transhuman agenda was lacking. Only a few lonely voices raised objections, mostly found in obscure journals and periodicals.

I began to wonder if I was the only one feeling this unease, but fortunately I eventually found writers and intellectuals such as Kirkpatrick Sale (Rebels against the future) , Daniel Quinn (Ishmael) , Jerry Mander (In the Absence of the Sacred),  John Zerzan (Running on Emptiness) , Derrick Jensen ( A Language older than words) , Neil Postman (Technopoly) , and of course Thoreau. These writers are often described with many different terms, including but not limited to ‘anti-technology’ , ‘neo-luddite’, and ‘neo-primitve.’ But despite their differences, they all share a common distrust in the current pro-technology paradigm and the covert  trans-human agenda.

 

 

The smartphone is not a tool, it’s a drug

When it comes to smart phones, the question must be asked: who is the master and who is the slave?  Do you control your smart phone, or is it the other way around?

Although most owners of smart phones will laugh good-naturedly when queried about this and admit, “Yeah, I’m addicted to my iphone,” they are unwilling to look at the extent and ramifications of their addiction full in the face.

Most of my teenage students no longer bother to talk to one another before class, during breaks or after class. They file into the classroom one by one, take a seat as distant from the other students as possible, and then take out their gadgets and sullenly scroll thru the screen, thumbs working hard. Often, I will a half-dozen or more students in the room, and you can hear a pin drop, it is so silent. Nothing happening but eyes glued to screens.

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Less than 20 years ago when the first crude cell phones began appearing, there was at least some, but not much, discussion about when it was appropriate to interrupt a conversation to take a call. That brief discussion has ended and it is now taken for granted that it is permissible to answer the phone or a text message at any time, anywhere, for any reason.  It is acceptable to interrupt a deep and intense conversation between a mother/daughter, father/son, boss/employee, boyfriend/girlfriend, best friends, grandfather/grandson, husband/wife, and other relationship one can think of simply to answer a call. Sure, you can still ask, politely, for the person you are conversing with to put away their phone for the duration of the conversation, but be prepared for strange  and sometimes downright hostile looks from them.

Most of the phone carriers where I live in Southeast Asia do not provide voice messaging. There is nowhere for someone to leave a message if you do not answer the phone. But really, who needs such a service nowadays?  The phone is with you all the time, and when it rings you answer it. Period. If someone calls and you don’t pick up, they assume you have mysteriously disappeared or perhaps died. They don’t even follow up the missed call with a text message. The notion that someone might  purposely decline to answer a call is inconceivable to people now, especially the under-35 generation.

 

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It’s humorous to observe people when the phone is in their pocket or handbag and a call comes in. They  immediately spring into action, almost like they are in a fight-or-flight response. They appear to think that if the phone buzzes more than once or twice, it is an insult to the person who is calling.  There is nothing casual at all about the way they reach for their smartphone. Their master – the phone-  is calling, and they reach for it with the utmost sense of urgency.

The common scene now at restaurants, bars , and cafes is for hipsters and pseudo hipsters to have a whole arsenal of digital gadgets spread out on the table before them.  I recently sat across from a young twenty-something girl at a cafe who was so desperate to appear cool that she took no chances. She had not one, but two smartphones in front of her, plus a tablet. She hid her face behind oversized sunglasses and earphones. She chain smoked marlboro cigarettes and drank aspartame-laced Diet Coke. She had a notebook with some scribbles open on the table, but never once touched it. The Lost Generation on full display.

 

 

The death of literacy. Restaurant owners leading the charge to a dumbed down world

In many places in Asia, it is not necessary to be able to read when you wish to order food in a restaurant. The majority have menus which require dozens of pages as each page only has two or three items. The reason? Each entree and item must have an accompanying photo. Apparently, there are people out there who do not know what french fries look like. Or a bowl of soup. Or a coconut. Or a can of coke. Literally everything needs a photo. The menu pages have also become cardboard thick. Have we lost so much dexterity in our hands that we cannot turn the pages on regular size paper?

A new dim sum restaurant opened last week on my block. Out front, two six foot tall sandwich board signs are plastered with photos of the menu items. Inside, each wall is covered with enlarged photos of entrees and various dim sum items. Above the counter is yet another three by six foot backlit sign with food photos. You see all that before you even lay eyes on the menu itself, which of course has even more.

A chimpanzee would easily be able to walk in and place an order there. Some day soon, I’m going to do my best chimpanzee imitation and walk into one of these restaurants and not say a word. I will be hunched over and dragging my arms along the ground. I will make high pitched screeching noises and point excitedly at the picture that I like.  I will press my stubby fingers on the menu picture that I like and wait for my food to arrive.  No doubt this will work.

This past weekend I made my first trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My girlfriend and I sat down to eat in a fairly nice but not too expensive restaurant in a downtown shopping mall. The young, fresh-faced server, who was somewhere between late teens and early twenties,  came to take our order. He arrived not with a pen and order book,   but with an iPad computer. He asked for our orders and then proceeded to enter them into the iPad with his thumbs. I couldn’t see the screen but I feel confident that all he had to do was press the corresponding picture on the screen.

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We have now come full circle. First, they made it unnecessary for customers to be literate. Now, even the servers need not be able to write. They can merely listen to the order and find the accompanying photo on the screen. Restaurant owners, like owners of many other businesses, are quick to respond to current trends and even quicker to cater to the lowest common denominator. My dear readers, do you see where all of this is heading? Right now, orders to the kitchen are spat out on a ticket which the chef has to read before he starts to prepare the item. Soon, large flat screens will be installed in restaurant kitchens and a light will flash with a photo of an entree whenever an order is placed.

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I observed this young kid fumbling with his computer at our table while taking our order. Instead of being focused on us, the customers, he was focused on the screen which he was holding up to his nose. His face was bathed in that eerie computer screen glow. I’m sure the pencil -necked geek owner who thought of the idea of giving all servers an iPad thought he was being clever and efficient. All this cute technology however did not prevent the kid from bringing me the wrong order. Sigh….

Rise of the techno zombies, part 2

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.’

smartphones and the rise of the zombies

I am trying to move down the narrow aisle of the plane with my carry-on luggage, feeling stressed and irritable. I want to unload my bad onto the overhead bin and get in my seat, but am delayed because the girl in front of me is texting with one hand and maneuvering her luggage with the other. She apparently is unable to put down her phone for even two minutes to do what she needs to do so that the rest of us can get on our way. 

I am sitting in a trendy downtown cafe in Ho Chi Minh City.  A young mother walks in with her daughter and a friend. The daughter is around 10-years-old and like most young kids with yuppie parents, she has her new tablet computer under her arm. They grab a table and sit down. The daughter is thoroughly engrossed in the show she is watching on her tablet. She sits facing away from her mother  and for the next 60 minutes, speaks not more than a handful of words to them.  The mother is unconcerned.

 

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A mother and teenage daughter sit down next to me in a restaurant in Lima, Peru. The daughter has a disinterested, aloof expression, tinged with a look of disgust, common with teenagers. They are not speaking. The daughter holds her smartphone up to her nose, texting furiously. The mother has a resigned expression. I sense that what I am witnessing is almost a daily ritual. They do not speak. When the breakfast arrives, the daughter holds the fork in her right hand, shoveling the food into her mouth so that she can continue texting. She wants nothing to do with her mother. When they finally leave, I notice they only thing they have said the entire meal is “Let’s go now.”

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A few minutes later as I leave, I notice a father sitting with his two kids. The older one is a girl in her early teens. She has her trendy , sporty new smartphone and is texting her friends. The younger boy is playing video games on his. The father stares vacantly and despondently into space, acknowledging that he has lost his kids.

A young girl in Australia smashes into a bicyclist with her car. She had been texting and didn’t see the young man whose spine she just smashed.

My teenage students arrive one by one into the classroom. They do not acknowledge each other, but simply take their seats and surf the net on their phones, tablets or laptops until the class begins. Some of them cannot  resist glancing at their phone periodically during class, until I physically take it from them.

 

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At break time, many of them run to the computer lab to get online to access facebook or play computer games, even though the break is only five minutes and I have explicitly told them not to go to the lab as they will lost track of time.

I walk down the busy city sidewalk. Walking directly toward me from the opposite direction is a young man who is texting. Oblivious to all other sensory data, he nearly crashes into me, glancing up only for a millisecond before resuming his journey onward, nose to phone.

I sit at the sushi bar with my girlfriend. To our left and right sit four single women. Each one has a Iphone or computer in their lap and is busy texting with left thumb, while eating with the right hand.

 

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A young couple sits down at a restaurant for dinner. They sit facing each other. Each immediately takes out their iphone from their pocket and begins checking their FB. For the next hour, they will speak only a few words, such as “This place is ok.” And, “You ready to go?”

A young woman sits next to me on a bus which will travel from Lima to Chiclayo on the north coast of Peru. The trip is eight hours. She falls into the seat and immediately opens her laptop. For the next 8 hours, she will do nothing except chat on facebook with her friends. She has no interest in what the man next to her is doing in her country. She could care less.

I am having lunch at a restaurant. A group of tables has been set up to accommodate a large group. They come in, one by one. It is obvious they all work together at a company. As each sits, they take out their phone and begin surfing. A few minutes later, there are approximately 20 people at the table, and though it is clear they are celebrating the completion of some project, you can hear a pin drop, as there is no conversation taking place.

A story appeared recently about a man who boarded a bus in San Francisco. He had a gun. He robbed someone. Nobody paid him any mind, as they were all busy with their electronic gadgets and didn’t even notice him.

I am having a coffee at one of my favorite cafes. I grab a random magazine from the rack to glance at while I drink my iced coffee. The magazine is filled with advertisements for new smartphones, tablets and HDTVs. The few pages that are not advertisements are glowing reviews of said products, with titles such as “Which smartphone is right for you?” The entire magazine is basically an advertisement for  our great electronic future.

The stories above are all true, and I could easily list hundreds more. They are just a random selection from my memory. Humanity, we have a problem. Although most people are still not yet familiar with the term Transhumanism, nevertheless we are well on our way to the dystopian future envisaged by men such as Ray Kurzweil. Although the technocrats themselves do not see this future vision as dystopian, it will surely be the end of the human race as we have known it.

I am part of the last generation to have grown up without computers and cell phones. Ask most people over the age of 45 if they would accept being implanted with a microchip, and they will scream, “Bloody hell, no!” But for the younger generations coming up now, it is a different story. They have been so softened up by the gadgets and toys which are so integral a part of their life, that getting a chip implant will seem to them like a logical next step. Google glass and the smart wristwatches that are now being marketed is the next phase.

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I have always had deep reservations about technology and so-called ‘progress.’ During my 20s, I searched for some intellectual underpinnings for the wariness and discomfort I was experiencing as the computer revolution took hold. I found the academic rigor I was looking for in the writings of authors such as Kirkpatrick Sale, Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen.

Of these writers, Neil Postman (1931-2003) is  probably the most accessible and readable. He wrote for the mass market, and his books are wonders of lucidity, insight, and clarity. He was able to look back over the whole course of human history to show how our present societal upheavals with computer technology resonates with prior upheavals. (See: the printing press.)

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John Zerzan is unknown outside of a small circle of intellectuals and anarchist thinkers, which is unfortunate . His books, including Running on Emptiness and Against Civilization are well worth reading, if you can find them. Zerzan is maybe the foremost proponent of a school of thought called ‘anarcho-primitivism.’

As we hurtle pell-mell into the future, I yearn for that national (or global) dialogue which has never taken place, and which absolutely needs to take place. That is, a  discussion on “Where are we going?” And, “Is this really the future that we want?” Furthermore, “Is what we are gaining more worthwhile than what we are losing?”

The classic movie “The Gods Must be Crazy” (1980) was a comedic film with a deep philosophical and sociological message. In the film, a tribe of  Bushmen in Botswana is thrown into turmoil when they recover a coke bottle thrown from an airplane. This new ‘technology’ at first proves very useful and practical for them. Yet very quickly, the tribe is grappling with new issues such as possessiveness, envy, anger, selfishness and violence. The tribal elder is at last confronted with his duty and task: take the ‘evil thing’ and throw it off the end of the earth. The tribe concludes, correctly, that this seemingly beautiful and useful thing has an evil side which outweighs whatever benefits it bestows. Our problem is that we have a tribe of 7 billion, and we have no ways of throwing our toys back at the gods, or off the edge of the earth. And unlike that small band of Bushmen, we have not even sat down to talk about the matter. Until we do, we will be  weaned away from our humanity, and led obliviously toward our cyborg future.  The gods really must  be crazy.

 

http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Absorbed-device-users-oblivious-to-danger-4876709.php