Digital bedlam

Yesterday I was riding the BTS here in Bangkok, when I noticed a guy standing in the corner of the car. What first caught my attention was his face, which was bathed in an unholy glow. Short of sleep as I was, my first thought was, yow, this is some kind of divine messenger, maybe sent by my dear, departed mother to have another go at finally setting me straight.

Then I realized the light came from the iPad he was holding in one hand. Whoa, I thought. This dude is right there on the leading edge, probably reading Proust at the same time he’s checking his e-mail and updating his blog.

Little did I know, because next I see he also has a live iPhone in his other hand, not to mention he’s wired to a set of headphones he maybe borrowed from a fighter pilot. No doubt he was digitally multi-tasking in ways lesser mortals such as myself couldn’t even guess at.

My point is that this vignette presents just one more harbinger of the future. Like the first time I opened the door to the loo in a local bar, probably more years ago than I want to think, and discovered one of the barmaids perched on the throne with a cell phone up against her head, this accessory so gloriously cool, back then, that it obviated any embarrassment at my intrusion. She merely sat up straighter and gave me a haughty look, never leaving off her conversation with her stockbroker in Tokyo or whatever. Yeah, and it seems like only yesterday I was boggling on the Skytrain listening to half a dozen different ringtones in concert or, even more recently, being taken aback to see otherwise apparently healthy people animatedly talking to themselves, missing a beat before I tumbled to the Bluetooth earphones. But all that’s already old hat, and has been since longer ago than yesterday. And all the signs—my radically wired Skytrain companion from yesterday, for one—point to even more radical changes on the near horizon.

In the meantime, here’s something from our virtual friend Leary, channeling from 55 years or so in the future:

When did everything first started beeping at us? By the turn of the 21st century, for sure, you had your mobile phones, your pagers, PDAs, alarm clocks, microwave stoves, car doors, car alarms, seat belts, energy conservers, even personal computers—PCs, we called ’em. Eventually, we had gosh knows what-all squawking and beeping and driving me, for one at least, crazy. My toilet — my toilet, mind you — beep-beeping away, telling me my blood sugar levels were elevated.

We invented a bunch of gadgets we mostly didn’t need and then fixed it so they could nag us to death, just as though we didn’t already have mothers and wives. Everything was pay attention to this; no, pay attention to that. Wait, what about me? My phone, your phone, incoming e-mail, step clear, the train’s coming, do up your safety belt, close the door, your coffee’s ready, you need to buy more eggs, the insulin pump has run dry, slow down, your heart is racing, and why wouldn’t it be, what with all the gadgetry niggling at you and you never get a minute’s peace and quiet?

They invented beeps scientifically designed to scratch our most basic anxieties, and they came up with long-life batteries so these things would never run down. It got so the whole darned world was one big alarm system. You’d get hit by a storm of beeps, and you’d have no real idea who was supposed to be alarmed or exactly why. All you knew was that something was ready or late or about to shut down, or blow up or something. Get up! Sit down! Duck! Get that cake out of the oven; change my battery; plug me in; talk to me; call me back; cheer up, for gosh sakes… Juststandbytillyouhearanotherfriggin’beep.

On top of all that, you had the music. Some of it, you didn’t know if you were listening to the top of the pops or whether all your appliances were rioting. And those citizens who weren’t on their phones were plugged into MP3 players instead, little portable music machines, their heads leaking music when their headphones weren’t on tight. There was no escaping it. You even got song birds imitating mobile ringtones. Darn it, we had a beeping mynah in our garden down Sukhumvit Road. “Run answer the bird,” my Ellie used to tell me. (That mynah’s part of the specs even here in our virtual Bangkok, though we specified nearly every other digital beep out of existence. Gosh. Just one more way that qubital realities are making our lives better.)

“Answer the bird, dear!”

Off the Mark” cartoon used with permission.

5 thoughts on “Digital bedlam

  1. When I went to the Wailing Wall, I loved seeing the Jews in their archaic black suits and hats, holding cell phones up to the wall so Uncle Avram in New York could pray “at” the wall.

    During that same trip, someone in Tel Aviv was stopped for erratic driving, and was found to have been talking on two cell phones and driving with his elbows. That was what I took as a sign of the apocalypse to come.

    • The Wailing Wall image is excellent. Globally and cosmically wired, we are, and I suppose we’re going to have to live with this somehow.

      As to the second instance of digital dementia, I suspect this is the kind of behavior that’ll make it easier to sell us on communications chip implants, nice little iFixes for the Frontal Lobes. Paranoia alert: I’ll bet our technological/commercial scouts are already plotting this iTomfoolery route to the Land of Milk and Honey.
      Of course it is pretty early in the morning, and I may be prone to gloom.

    • In some quarters this would be considered heretical. I suppose you are aware that “real” tennis is in no way digital, so your inquisitors will want to know how you can possibly believe it’s better.

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