In Thailand, the iPad mostly remains a rumor of digital utopia on the other side of the world. But travelers to those distant parts are beginning to arrive back here with their über-gadgets.
And they are harbingers of epidemic social change. These carriers of the current Digital Grail—and soon, I suspect, they’ll include everybody in the world with a few hundred dollars to spend—behave as though they carry new-born children, and they’re prone to dropping these items on the coffee table in the middle of a party, or on the dinner table, and saying, “Look! Isn’t it cute?”
And it isn’t as though you can ignore an iPad. Not with its vivid colors and fascinating images flashing this and that. IPads don’t launch an arc of piss into your soup, but they’re just about as welcome on the dinner table nevertheless.
It’s one thing to have epidemic “absent presence,” or “present absence,” where a number of parties to any social gathering are on their phones talking to people elsewhere, or watching videos on YouTube, checking the stock markets, scheduling flights or playing games. But it’s another thing altogether to demand we all join in, or at least stop to admire how it’s done in glorious high-resolution, high-contrast color.
What’s going to happen to the art of conversation? Always-on TVs in bars and people’s homes, with or without the sound, already distract people from paying real attention to what their companions are saying. It’s like, whoa! I’m listening, okay, but I’m also multi-tasking. I’m watching little football players scamper on that screen up there—without the commentary they might as well be Brownian particles—but I’m listening, I’m listening. Oh, excuse me a minute—I’ve got to take this phone call…
But the iPad takes this kind of thing to new levels. Now it’s “Look at this graphic novel, eh? Look! See the color? And see what happens when I turn the iPad this way? Isn’t that something?”
Yeah, wow. It is something. It’s the most insidious corruptor of social occasions we’ve seen so far. Worse than TVs, worse than cell phones. Worse than prodigal children with violins.
Hold on, you’re telling me. This gadget is just that—the latest gadget—the novelty will wear off soon enough. So you say. But I don’t think so.
IPads are highly portable windows on the digital universe, ones that allow us all to share what were the relatively private distractions of always-connected to the Internet computers. And, as the iPad contagion spreads to nearly everyone, we’re going to get a collective orgy of multi-tasking that may mean nobody ever focuses on any single thing ever again, whether it be a conversation, a book that needs writing or, I fear, some book awaiting a reader.
“Look at this cool new iPad app I’ve just loaded!”
“Cool. But look at this latest issue of Preacher. Unbelievable colors, no?”
“See my new game…”
“See these photos from my kids playing with their new iPads…”
“Here, check this out—a full-color review of the next generation iPad. It’ll be available in Thailand next month.”
“See? I can read this novel on my iPad, and I can also read it on my mobile phone and on my computer at home. And they all know exactly where I am in the book at any given time!”
Neat. Except no one will read novels any more. Not really read them, anyway. Nobody will read anything longer than a paragraph at any given time without being distracted by an embedded URL to something else that needs reading, or to a video gloss on what they’re already trying to read, or an encyclopedia entry, or a Spanish version of the book, or their e-mail box or Web favorites or a chat room or a fast-food delivery service. Or an online discussion group of this very page, or paragraph, that you’re reading now. Or, of course, by some else wanting to show you what’s on his iPad. But what the hell, eh? Reading a whole novel is hard, and it takes so much time. Why not pop up a game instead, or a feature film, or Google Earth or something?
The iPad, I fear, is a little window into our future. A future where individuals, and their relationship to the collective, is rapidly becoming something new, and where the distinction between the two becomes ever-more blurred.
Or maybe the blurriness just comes from too much staring into both my new iPad. Not to mention everyone else’s. (Just kidding. I haven’t really bought one; it just seemed a good way to end this and, maybe, an admission that it’s only a matter of time before I do succumb.)