Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conversations with a smartphone

There is a kind of eager beaver who is itching to touch his touch pad, for nobody clicks any more these days.  Conversations with such folks can be stupefying.  Follow, for instance this recent conversation with a friend, who has his iphone handy for every occasion.  Commenting on anything, that has even a hint of speculation, can be hazardous.  “It looks like it might rain this evening” I said, one day—I am not a gardener, nor a farmer--the comment was one made in passing interest.  “Let me see”, he says.  We wait as he pokes around his screen, we wait, and we wait some more as the data downloads.  “There it is, 40% chance of rainfall”.  I suck in air to begin to speak again, but he suspends my inhalation mid-air, “Wait, lets see”, his index finger strokes the glass screen once more, “drops to 20% chance of showers after 10 pm”. This search for precision kills me.

We promise a world that will be sensored and networked extensively. And we will experience our surroundings by poking at what our screen tells us.  Take my son who runs to the monitor to see if it is raining rather than viewing the clouds outside: two decades later, his children might tap into a sensor that tells them whether they have awoken from sleep in the morning. A reality from within.  Is this good? We simply do not know.  More than two decades ago, one of my friends, SG, used to joke that when we called his house, his refrigerator would pick up the phone and state that the answering machine wasn’t available to take the call.  Those were the days that appliances starting becoming multifunctional.  Today if you call me, my phone rings audibly.  Then my television, if it is on, flashes the message that I have received a phone call, and if the caller has checked away a certain portion of his privacy rights, then his name is displayed at the top of the screen.  This can impart a certain significance to the call.  In the event that I do not take the call,  I am shot off an email, I can call a number to retrieve the message, or I can hear this on my laptop, or have it transcribed into text on my computer.  And when all of this happens at the same time, a jolt of activity triggered by an innocent ring, and the orchestrated participation of my phone, my television, my computer and, as I secretly suspect (based upon my friend’s earlier assumptions) the complicity of my refrigerator, the intensity of the experience urges me to attend to the call at once.  Does this really help me?

My friend with the i-phone checks everything out on the mobile web.  When I see him I think of him as strapped to the camera at the start of Star Wars("long long time ago on a galaxy far far away....") asteroids of information coming at, through and past him, this information that we always call “digital”, but one with which our interaction is always analog.  He keeps our conversation accurate, but screws up the rhythm.

Years later, the stuff that we marvel at today, we will affectionately dismiss as clunky. The batteries don’t last beyond a few hours, the phones choke up your pockets, the sound quality is terrible, the screen is rigid, I have to poke at various things to do a few things.  Years ago, there was a company that was interested in retinally scanning images into your eyeballs. Perhaps this might come back.  You will see without having to look. Perhaps instead of batteries, these appliances will power off of your body.  You could eat all you want, without regard to calories—a surgical implant and a modification to your liver will allow your body to absorb only the energy that it needs, routing the excess energy that is today stored as excess fat, to charge your smart phones. You could be a trim glutton, wired in more ways than one. You would have a trim machine enforcing a trim owner. 

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