I recently purchased a new mobile phone. A Blackberry Bold 9700. It is the first such purchase I have ever made. I am a very late comer to these devices. The past two models I’ve owned, a Verizon LG, and a Motorola of some sort (the latter being the epitome of compact design in my estimation) came with a packaged set up by my wife. Basically, the deals were pretty good so why not take a phone for emergencies? I have to confess, it only took being broken down and stranded on the 134 freeway at 10:30 at night to make you see the wisdom of owning a piece of cellular technology.
But recently I’ve noticed increasing number of my friends, colleagues and students have begun preferring text messages to email messages. Still other interlink their home and office email addresses with their mobile devices. Then there are the various functions that mimic or parallel the performance of a computer, such as accessing individual websites, purchasing good and services, getting directions. I realize these aspects of use are probably as interesting as oxygen to anyone under 30. Generation Y and their little brothers and sister in Generation Z increasingly disinterested in sequestering themselves in their rooms when they could be out in the world. But they still over their technology, just as their older cohorts and Gen X elders do. But the new wave of mobile technology allows them to seamlessly integrate their virtual lives with their flesh-and-bone lives.
And yes, the attention span does suffer. Focus erodes as capacity increases. It is also unclear how pervasive this trend is. As far as I know, no formal studies of youth behavior have been conducted to account for this almost absurd level of multi-tasking. I sincerely doubt there will be a dramatic decrease in the appeal of “cocooning” one’s self in his or her office and exploring the virtual space unselfconsciously. The youngest cohorts of Gen Y (approximately born around 2000 – 2001) will be entering their teen years shortly, whereas their oldest brothers and sisters are in their late 20s by this point. The middle cohort, hovering in sophomore and junior years of high school, are stuck between the coddling restrictions of the home-place, and the promise of adult freedom of movement. Mobile technology allows for a version of freedom that allows them to feel as if their world is much more expansive than it is. Meanwhile, tech-savvy Gen X parents feel the comfort of “sustained” contact with their children, even though they really can’t be sure if their kid is actually at their friend’s house, or visiting a tattoo parlor and making friends with a 25 year old named Hawk.
I don’t remember who said it… and I don’t even really remember the quote itself, but the gist was that Americans are never happier as when they are on their way to, or leaving from, someplace they want to be. In other words, we are restless. Mobile technology seems designed to placate, endorse, and facilitate this sensibility. The oafish call of “where you at?” is a code for the real question, “are you having a better time than I am?” The technology provides ample opportunities for “escaping” a less-than-desirable destination. How many women have extricated themselves from a bad date by feigning an important phone call? How many dull lectures have students avoided with the plausible excuse of a family emergency? The pantomime of sociability, trumped by the kabuki of far-off, personal matters.
Who will be the brave soul who call “Bullshit!” to this practice? He will be honored in Sweden, surely.
The long-term implications are impossible to presage, but certainly we will become more adventurous. We have mobility on so many fronts – from the personal vehicles we drive, to the tiny digital devices that allow us to be “stationless” – that we might well simply live totally on the lamb, as it were. We won’t live anywhere anymore, we will simply “crash” where we can. (There almost certainly an app for this for the iPhone.) Perhaps the unborn late cohort of Gen Z (eta, 2015) will grow up to become a vagabond middle class. Working itinerate service-sector jobs. They can do their work from the mobile command ports at Starbucks or Pink Berry. Their social lives will run the clock out. Although, by that point, we can expect neural interfaces to usher in the something like digital pseudo-telepathy. That would such a remarkable development that the paradigm shift that would be wrought can scarcely be imagined.
Meanwhile, in mid-2010, I am searching for a tiny SIM-card among the detritus of packaging material that came with my new Blackberry. It seems our shift away from paper has created a physical-world vacuum that will be filled, if not stuffed, with discrete pieces of clear plastic, and black twist-ties.