A few months ago, during an after-school writing session, I led a group of teenagers through a brief and largely improvised tour of the last 10 years of technology with an eye toward our hasty speculation about the future.
Ten years ago, I told them, we had just graduated from mobile phones with the shape and density of bricks. That was the foundation of our communication — minus the mortar — and at that point the telephone had no greater aspiration than connecting one mouth to one ear without wires and bases.
Then came the core product line of PDAs, which I can personally trace through my own collection of outdated Casio handhelds and early Palm devices. I can also mark the upgrades in computers from the first Mac desktop I bought about four years out of college to a terribly old second-hand Mac laptop I purchased in the late 1990s to my now veteran iBook, the last of its line to hit the street without an internal wireless card.
I'm not one to jump into the technological rapids without heed or need. I'll stick with an old model until its soles flop noisily with each less-than-high-speed step.
Don't even get me started on my cell phone, I told my students. Quaintly enough, I still use that poor old device to make phone calls. I rarely send text messages and generally only in response to text messages from a pair of friends who seem to speak best in shorthand without vowels.
My model doesn't flip, isn't slim and can't take pictures because it's a phone. It has some games, but I haven't actually played a video game since I was laid up for a summer during college after a serious accident and my friends bought me a Nintendo system so they wouldn't have to just sit around staring at my broken body when they came to visit.
To be fair, I do have an iPod (courtesy of my wife, who doesn't use the one her sister gave her). I love having easy access to all the music I have on file in my iTunes.
Before the iPod — which I must point out isn't a newfangled video iPod or an ultra-skinny looker — I did invest in an iShuffle while I was training for a marathon a few years back. The Shuffle works fine, too, but it's one of the older chewing gum pack models that — like all things iRelated — has been replaced by a slicker, more compact design.
Which, of course, leads me to the iPhone. The One Device that binds them all. Phone. Camera. Personal data. Internet access. Music. Movies.
It's in charge of every facet of our lives, so much so I sometimes wonder how they can even include the "i" in the name. We barely exist anymore — which I suppose does explain the small "i" — but no one seems concerned that we're disappearing in the rush to have it all.
I sit in movie theaters watching people who are far more enamored with the small screens they carry around with them than the larger-than-life experience projected before them. We need to be reminded, somewhat forcefully, to turn the gadgets off and tune into the big picture. We've forgotten how to connect and share a larger vision together.
There's a line in the new Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men about how when we stopped being well-mannered (simply saying "Yes ma'am" or "Yes sir") it was the sign of society's jump off the straight and narrow.
I'm not an old man by any stretch of the imagination, but I am Southern and was raised by a mother and a grandmother who made sure I knew to respect others, hold eye contact and give a good strong handshake — which means I know enough to not have to be reminded to turn my damn phone off in a movie theater. I certainly wouldn't make a nuisance of myself trying to hold a conversation or send a text message while the movie's playing.
For that technology lesson with my writing class, I brought up academic/philosopher Cornel West and his question about what it means to be modern. To be modern, he says, "is to have the courage to use one's critical intelligence to question and challenge the prevailing authorities, powers and hierarchies of the world."
If this is true — and that's up to each of us to decide for ourselves — being modern, from my own perspective, sure means something more than using our critical intelligence to build a smarter device. We need to develop smarter and more human beings. That should be the challenge.
Instead, we're shrinking, becoming more and more like the small "i" in all of these devices. For every decrease in human contact and interaction, for every rudeness afforded to us by these conveniences, for every moment we sit on our asses watching YouTube without taking a more active role in the activities of the world around us, we slouch toward extinction.
I'm not even encouraging more progressive thought, action or engagement here — just get off the couch.
The entertaining health news of the past month addressed a study that concluded 10 to 15 extra pounds are no great cause for concern; in fact, there's an added health benefit to a few pounds. That's the worst news anyone could broadcast to American audiences, because it re-enforces the belief that nothing matters.
It gives us an excuse to not exercise or walk around the neighborhood. It tells us it's alright to sit back and gab away on our latest iThingie or play a few more video games rather than run around the fields and basepaths at our parks.
In my nostalgia for the life I had in Philadelphia before moving here, there's one thing I remember without fondness about that city: how Philly was noted for being one of the fattest cities in the country. Hey, all those cheesesteaks leave their mark.
And as I look around the Queen City, I see how the chili and brats and that small "i" attitude sure can mis-shape our royal rumps and a city's psyche. Come on, don't we take enough abuse without heaping more of it on ourselves?
Don't buy into the iQuit. Once you do, it's all over.
Be human. Be modern. Be.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.