Reign of the Gadgets: The Illusion of Personal Choice
July 30, 2011 14 Comments
The gadgets that keep me company—the iPhones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and TVs—poke at me from every direction. “Listen,” they say, “look at me. Stroke my keys, brush the dust from my screen. Please, please use me, need me, and never put me down.”
Whenever I choose to leave my apartment to spend a few hours reading and sipping coffee at the bookstore, I cast a glance at my iPad and wonder if I ought to bring it with me. “Of course you ought to,” the iPad says to me. “You need to check e-mail and Facebook and you must know in real time whether anyone has commented on your blog.”
Owning the iPad has created in me a need to own an iPad and hover over my virtual self with a compulsion that borders on obsessive. Of course, this argument is with myself, not my iPad. I wanted to go to the bookstore to occupy what Shirley Heath, Stanford social scientist, calls an “enforced transition zone” into which the outside world not only does not, but cannot intrude.
In the “enforced transition zone” I regain my freedom. I’m allowed to become lost in myself rather than in the collective of the connected world, where temptations dangle in front of me and images, ideas and suggestions lodge themselves in my mind from moment to moment.
I don’t feel like I chose to buy an iPad, or to join Facebook, or to own a cell phone. They chose me, and they marshaled the “decisions” of a billion people all over the world to inveigle me into making a choice that no longer feels like a choice. These devices and services are part of the fabric of reality, and to abstain from them would be to pretend that I don’t walk on solid earth, that I don’t breathe air like the rest of humanity, that I exist on an island and that I have no need of human contact and community. I can’t choose to opt out of life itself.