Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A cautionary tale

There's a commercial making the rounds, (don't ask me what it's for), that features people affixed to their smart phones shall we say, inappropriately. There's one shot of a bride and groom at the altar staring at their personal devices as they take their vows. Another, the punch line of the ad, has a man fishing his phone out of a urinal, having dropped it while "multitasking." The man at the adjacent pissoir stares at the unfortunate fellow and gives him today's universal sign of sardonic incredulity, the terse comment: "really?"

These little skits would be funny if they weren't so true to life. You see them everywhere, people teathered to their portable devices as if they were lifelines, which I suppose to many, they are.

Don't get me wrong, smart phones are marvelous inventions, the long dreamed of "all in one" machine that can do the same amount of work it used to take dozens of machines, hands, and or human minds to accomplish. In that sense, they're not so different from this fabulous invention of yesteryear:

Yes, it slices and it dices, but the real question is, can your smart phone core a apple? Well perhaps not, but it can do just about anything else.

As with all innovations, there are down sides to this brave new technology. Ever have dinner with a friend who insists upon answering his cell phone AND carry on an entire conversation with the disembodied voice at the other end while you're left to eat your lasagna alone? Or ever attend the theater or a concert when some goofball's phone starts to ring?

Of course those are the minor inconveniences. Tragically, people have lost their lives as a result of some knucklehead finding it necessary to text someone while driving a car. How it ever occurred to anyone to text at the same time as driving I'll never know, but years ago I did see someone reading a newspaper while behind the wheel so nothing surprises me. The fact that there are people dumb enough to text and drive making it necessary to create laws to prevent such things really says a lot about the intelligence or lack thereof of many of our fellow inhabitants of the planet.

A news item just aired about a tragedy that happened the other day in Chicago. Three young visitors from Minnesota spent the night here out on the town, presumably having a drink or three in the process. As they were strolling along the River Walk at about three in the morning, one of them took out his smart phone to take a picture of the frozen river. He accidentally dropped the phone into the river, then decided to go in to fetch it. As the temperature had been well above freezing for three or four days (after the so called Polar Vortex),  the river ice was thin and the poor fellow fell through. His two companions, another man and a woman went in after him. The two men were eventually pulled out of the water by the Fire Department. One of them, the owner of the cellphone, died later at the hospital. The CFD called off the search for the woman after divers spent several futile hours in the complete dark of the near freezing water. Her body was recovered the next day. The third victim fortunately survived the ordeal.

No word on the fate of the cell phone.

Despite feeling terrible all day about the tragedy of these three young people and their grieving families, part of me couldn't help but think about what a stupid way to die that was. Two lives, nearly a third lost over a two hundred dollar appliance. The whole sordid incident reminded me this morning of the Darwin Awards, the annual tongue-in-cheek prize given posthumously to those individuals who gave their lives (in stupid ways), thereby contributing to the survival of the species by taking themselves out of the gene pool.

However after thinking about it for a moment, putting myself into the late cellphone owner's shoes, I couldn't assure myself beyond a reasonable doubt that I wouldn't have done exactly the same thing, especially after an evening of taking delight in the juice of the barley.

Let's face it, outside of a cherished toy or a Little Leaguer's beloved baseball glove, I can't think of any physical object that brings as much personal satisfaction or elicits more feelings of protectiveness from its owner than the modern day smart phone. Of course this is only conjecture since I don't actually have one; my portable phone, bless its little silicon heart, is decidedly dumb by comparison.

Done up to the extreme, a smart phone can perform hundreds of tasks from book to camera to jukebox to personal movie theater to e-mail box, to command center of its user's social life. And yes it can also be used as a telephone. Throw in the countless apps available with the touch of a button, and the sky's the limit to what you can do with a smart phone. As a constant companion, most smart phone owners feel naked and lonely if they happen to leave home without their device.

Compulsive as I am, I know that if I had one, I too would be transfixed, which is one of the reasons I resist the temptation to get one.

Thinking about all this, I conducted an informal survey on the trip home on the L this evening. I'd say that about 80 percent of the passengers were using one kind of portable electronic device or other. To be fair, some of those people were listening to music through ear buds while reading an actual book made out of wood fiber and offset printed with ink. Others read a traditional book or newspaper without the benefit of a soundtrack. Still others were engaged in honest to goodness, one on one, face to face conversation, which quite honestly, warmed my heart.

Those last two groups are the people I'm convinced, who will survive the apocalypse.

As for myself, well I can only say this: there but by the grace of God...

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