Quick quiz: It’s Friday night and you’re grabbing a drink with a friend. Midway through she wanders off to find the bathroom. You use the next three minutes to think about…
1. Climate change
3. Nietzsche’s claim that knowing and being are opposites
Kidding! People stopped thinking in 2007 or so. Now we just check email, glance at Facebook, dash off a Tweet or play Bejeweled. (I broke 400K the other day while my daughter put on her shoes.) Modern life has always burst at the seams, but in the past we could at least count on those little moments of repose — waiting for friends, waiting for the bus, at red lights, at green lights — for dollops of contemplation. In the era of smartphone saturation, however, it’s not even clear contempl– hang on, got a text!
You don’t have to be a Luddite to have mixed feelings about our total digitization. Eric Slatkin isn’t a Luddite. I came to know the prolific media maker shortly after he co-founded the Disposable Film Festival, an annual celebration of movies made on lo-fi video devices — you know, the phone you whipped out when your friend went looking for the bathroom. Slatkin makes a living among such devices, but he couldn’t help noticing his own unease over around their role in his life.
Where a technophobe might simply run for the beepless woods, Slatkin joined a growing number of folks attempting to carve out a more balanced existence amidst the ones and zeroes. In 2011 he launched Techout, a periodic picnic for fellow San Franciscans feeling torn about their digital dependencies. Prohibited on the spread of old blankets were any devices capable of transmitting a signal. Featured were donuts — and a nuanced discussion of how technology can simultaneously deplete and enrich our lives. (Among the bulwarks proposed: the Smartphone Valet, a locker into which bar patrons could surrender their Blackberries and iPhones for a few hours. “Remember when faces weren’t always lit from below?” someone asked.)
Tech ambivalence isn’t new, but it seems to be having a special moment now. Last month saw the publication of Snail Mail My Email: Handwritten Letters in a Digital World, by the new media artist Ivan Cash. Cash’s book grew out of his worldwide art project in which strangers took the emails of total strangers and converted them by hand into actual letters, to be posted in the mail.
For those of us simultaneously tech-weary and tech-addicted, it’s getting harder to walk that ever-narrowing line between empowered and enslaved. Me, I have few illusions about finding a lasting balance — I’m pretty close to hitting 450K on Bejeweled, which would be just huge. But next time I find myself with a couple minutes’ downtime at a bar, I’m going to resist reaching into my pocket. Who knows, it might just make for a more interesting Friday night. Which would give me something to text about later.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. Read his work at www.chriscolin.com.