Terms of Withdrawal

The other night, trying to fall asleep during a podcast hosted by two Millennials (probably in their mid-20s), I sat up taking notes on something they called “the enforced flexibility” of smartphones.

What an intriguing term! I know that addiction to smartphones is a serious problem, but these two weren’t concerned about user activity. They focused instead on the unseen consequences that haunt us long after we put the phone down.

So. Enforced flexibility, the young man said, is the act of texting right up to a meeting or a decision. The texting person gets to go with the flow of unexpected changes in timing and planning. People who receive the messages are forced to be just as “flexible” as the sender.

I had read about the transition from calling on your cell phone to texting (furiously) on your smartphone. And, silly me, I’d assumed those crowds of pedestrians obsessively looking down at their smartphones were reading books.

Here again the two hosts were less concerned about content on the tiny screen than  “schizoid geography.” This is the sense of living in a three-dimensional world but attending to the squared-off flatness of that thing in your  hand.

And while we’re absorbed by smartphone content, the woman added, we risk the “manhole cover experience.”  We don’t see mistakes coming, so we don’t learn how to correct them.  In an era of There’s an App for That, we’re all falling for “the ideology of convenience.”

The Deeper Problem

Then the young man said something I thought I’d never hear from a young man: Generally speaking, “Apps are created by an homogenous, mostly white, mostly male, mostly Bay Area startup community that’s automating the hassle of life out of existence.”

Wow, I thought.  Is that true?  (It’s probably true. I feel as though it’s true.)

He even quoted Marshall McLuhan, the famous media critic of half a century ago who declared that  “every extension is also an amputation.” Gad, I loved that guy. McLuhan might have been talking about the hidden dangers of television in the 1950s, but he meant that every labor-saving/brain-saving device reduces our power of doing/thinking for ourselves.

TV and smartphones are examples of this runaway technology. The medium itself is the message, McLuhan famously said. It doesn’t matter what we watch, or which little screen.

The hosts said they’re not the only ones who feel railroaded by the Silicon Valley notion of technological “progress.” The young man has started his own anti-Uber/anti-Lyft movement because he thinks it’s too easy to hire a car that three minutes later whooshes you out of your discomfort in one place to bring you to a “better” experience in another.

At this point the woman wondered if even younger Millenniels listening to this podcast will  laugh “at the two Gen-Xers waxing nostalgic over buying a bus ticket.”  (I think Gen-Xers are really old, like nearing 40.)

We all chuckled at that, despite the hour (3 a.m.), but the young man agreed. He wanted to put out a call to bring back boredom. When you’re waiting in a dentist office or bus stop, he said, don’t play a game on your smartphone or check your messages or send a text. “Make the brain fill in those empty spaces.”

(Of course if the waitees have downloaded a book they’re reading, even if it’s tiny 8-pt. type on an iPhone, I’d say that’s a happy compromise.)

Anyway, two admissions from me:

1) I couldn’t find the name or App for this podcast, and I’m so sorry.  These two brought enlightened discourse to a subject that needs deep and thoughtful discussion. If I ever hear them again, I’ll send word out. (BTW they are not, as far as I can tell, the hosts of Two Millennials, One Podcast).

2) Of the millions of podcasts exploding onto the cyberscene, I find most dumb and amateurish, thus my habit of using them to fall asleep. But here was the irony: I listened because it was a podcast. Had it been an opinion piece in the New York Times, I might have skipped it.

2a) Remember when Steve Jobs said, “Listening is the new reading”?  I loathed him for that (all the while “reading” hundreds of audiobook versions since the Books on Tape days back in the 70s.) He was too glib, too righteous, too….maybe right on about a big part of the population.

Neither of these two remarkable young hosts suggested that podcasts have replaced opinion pieces or reporting or other kinds of print journalism.  But appreciating their tough questions about smartphones in the wee hours, I began to wonder if we’re in an era where talking is the new writing.