Monday, October 10, 2011

The Dark Side Of Steve Jobs' Legacy

Millions of people claim they were at Woodstock despite the fact there were only 400,000 or so. And with the passing of Steve Jobs, millions will claim that they bought a 128K, the first Apple computer, 25 years ago before the brand became the standard by which all other computers are compared. No matter.

I myself finally escaped the clutches of Bill Gates and his evil PC Empire a mere three years ago and had to drag the Dear Friend & Conscience into this brave new world where functions that would take five clicks and a swear word on a Windows computer took one or two on a Mac.

Before you could say Ctrl Alt Delete, the DF&C became immersed in the Apple world. She is devoted to her MacBook Pro and loves the ability to cradle her iPhone in her car and make and receive calls hands free through the GPS system as well as webstream her favorite radio stations through one of the tens of thousands of the iPhone apps without having to take her eyes off the road is terrific. Okay, one eye off the road.

I mourn Jobs' passing. He was an extraordinary innovator who also had a wonderful design sensibility that makes the MacBook Pro, among other Apple products, so visually stunning. But as someone who went online for the first time in 1992, has had a laptop and an email account since 1993 and got a cell phone in 1985 (with the state-of-the-art brick-like battery pack), I have a vivid memory of my life before them and while they have made my life easier in key respects they have not made it better.

As I write this, the brains of the people around us who are addicted to text messaging -- and there are millions of them -- are slowly but inextricably being rewired. Their ability to focus on the task before them, whether something as mundane as preparing breakfast or something as serious as driving on a busy highway at 65 miles an hour -- is compromised by their compulsion to text.

This New Cyberia is on view whenever classes change at the university where I work. From my midday perch on the front steps of the main library, I can look out at the campus green and see perhaps five hundred students at a glance, at least half of whom are texting. Three years ago, the number would have been perhaps 10 percent, two years ago perhaps 20 percent, but so quickly has the addiction to texting grown that these students apparently no longer think that being prepared for their next class or a meeting with a faculty adviser is necessary as they traverse the green. It's "Did Buffy get back to me?" "Will Biff be at the fraternity rush?" "Did Mom get my text message about dropping Dad off my Guccis?"

What are we to expect from a generation that is going out into the world wedded to their smart phones, and Face Book, Twitter and email accounts?

For openers, a kind of "communication" that is deeply impersonal in a world already growing increasingly so, one in which dates are made and relationships ended with keystrokes and not face to face. For another, faux scholarship based not on using primary resources, but through Googling and YouTubing. For yet another, a world view based less on personal experience and interpersonal communication than the trill of a cell phone text message prompt.

A recent experiment reveals that some people actually fall in love with their iPhones. Seriously.

A branding consultant who has followed Apple from its early days when it had a cult following to its lofty position today conducted an experiment to examine the similarities between some of the world’s strongest brands and the world’s greatest religions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests, he and a team of researchers looked at subjects’ brain activity as they viewed consumer images involving brands like Apple and Harley-Davidson and religious images like rosary beads and a photo of the pope. The team found that the brain activity was uncannily similar when viewing both types of imagery.

Then this past summer, he gathered a group of 20 babies between the ages of 14 and 20 months. He handed each one a BlackBerry. No sooner had the babies grasped the phones than they swiped their little fingers across the screens as if they were iPhones, seemingly expecting the screens to come to life. It appears that a whole new generation is being primed to navigate the world of electronics in a ritualized, Apple-approved way.

While neurologists are just beginning to understand how the brains of up and coming generations are being altered, the Rubicon was long ago crossed that is filling classrooms, study halls, bedrooms and seemingly every other nook and cranny of our lives with technologies that are supposed to make our lives better, but too often create the impression of doing something when you're doing nothing.

There is no going back. And while the world certainly will be a different place, it is difficult to see how it will be a better one.

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