Reign of the Gadgets: The Illusion of Personal Choice

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.

Seeking Simplicity on the Rim of the Grand Canyon

Maybe I want to work at the Grand Canyon because I’m in search of simplicity.  I want to escape this world of infinite access to all things.  I don’t want to be tethered to the internet twenty-four hours a day.  I don’t want people to be able to call me wherever I go whenever they want.  I want to feel lonely.  I want the freedom of isolation, the freedom to constrain myself and disconnect from the noise of the twenty-first century.  When you can do anything, when you can find pleasure, satisfy your most idiosyncratic curiosities, and indulge your every whim with the click of a button, do you really gain freedom?  What is freedom of choice when the act of choosing becomes effortless, so that one choice is no better than another? 

I want to sit over the rim of the canyon and cast my gaze at its hundreds of red islands that rise out of the dark shadows of the earth.  I want to rejoice in the knowledge that except for my friends and my family, and anyone who happens to read this blog, nobody in the world knows where I am.  Nobody knows that I’ve fallen in love with a shaft of light cutting through the clouds that glide over the canyon.  Nobody knows that in that shaft of light I find justification for my existence and compensation for my aching knees that prevent me from hiking to the bottom of this majestic canyon.  Nobody knows that in the curtain of rain I see far in the distance I read an explanation for why the world is the way it is, why on the one hand people suffer while on the other light breaks through these dark clouds and softens the jagged edges of the canyon below, paints its skin red, orange and yellow, and here and there dabs specs of green to signify the life that thrives in its cracks and folds. 

Canyonlands National Park--not the "Grand Canyon," but part of the same system of canyons carved by the Colorado River

The Grand Canyon