While at a conference last week, I stepped onto a hotel elevator one morning and was struck by the Huxleyesque scene that greeted me. There were eight people on board, compromising a diverse cross section of gender, age, and race.
They included one nicely dressed black woman, who looked to be in her mid-forties … two guys in their twenties, wearing shorts, T-shirts, and, of course, ball caps turned backwards … a Latino male in a maintenance uniform, about thirty to thirty-five years of age … a fiftyish-looking white businessman in a suit and tie … two women (one black, one white) in their thirties or forties, dressed in their finest business garb … and a dapper, middle-Eastern looking man, perhaps in his early thirties.
What struck me was that, notwithstanding their diversity, there was a distinct commonality among them: All were completely engrossed looking at, and pressing various icons on, their handhelds. (I call them handhelds for lack of a better word, for to call them smartphones is to imply that their main function is to serve as telephones, and that function has become somewhat of a secondary purpose for these curious little digital creatures.)
The word that immediately flashed through my mind was: zombies. The scene had such a striking effect on me that for the next two days — in the hotel, at restaurants, on the street, and, finally, at the airport and on both of my flights — I found my eyes scanning swarms of people to see how many of them were staring at handhelds. Answer: Just about all of them.
I realize that fads come and go, but every day I’m increasingly struck by the fact that I have never seen anything quite like the explosion of the handheld phenomenon. Even Pac-Man and Mario finally faded into the background of fun ‘n games. But I have difficulty picturing the day when handhelds will be replaced by the next big thing.
The handheld is different. It’s sensual to the touch. It gives one a sense of empowerment. To hold it in one’s grip is an exhilarating macho experience (even for women!).
The handheld enraptures people in a way I have never before seen. Whereas video games can be stressful (after all, the object is to win), handhelds have a tranquilizing effect. Handhelds are to kids and adults what pacifiers are to infants. They are soothing to the brain’s noise box, relieving it of the obligation to live in, and observe, the real world.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about the handheld is that — and I still haven’t figured out exactly how it accomplishes this — it seems to level the playing field. It turns virtually everyone on the planet — from Wall Street wizards to minimum-wage fast-food workers — into geniuses.
No matter what one’s intelligence or station in life, he/she can find the nearest Chinese restaurant, get an answer to any whimsical question, or get the directions to just about anywhere — within seconds. Other than government aid, what else could people possibly need to keep them contented?
At the current pace of handheld technological advancement, it seems inevitable that these digital somas will soon have a chokehold on every human brain. There are more new handhelds activated every day than new babies born, and studies have shown that the average person checks his/her handheld every few minutes.
So the question is, is this a good or bad thing for the zombieized individual and the public at large? To be honest with you, I’m not really sure.
While on the surface, handhelds seem to be the ultimate freedom tool, they also perform a function always sought by those who are at the top of the power chain: They keep people occupied twenty-four hours a day. Without question, they have become the new opiate of the masses — and that can only be good for the power holders whose aim is to keep people in line.
So perhaps one good thing that could come from the handheld zombie trance is that there will be less time for people to engage in rioting, crime, and other anti-social behaviors. Who has time to commit crimes when they have to check their handheld every few minutes?
One cannot help but to wonder if the nature of the Big Bang predestined that mankind would ultimately become a giant race of handheld zombies that would become so utterly mesmerized that they would lose interest in all the other mind-dulling activities that have surrounded them for decades. Is it possible that fun addicts will eventually lose interest in college and pro sports, reality television, and rioting over imaginary grievances?
Don’t laugh — it could happen. Remember Ringer Rule No. 1: things change! And they will continue to change. Can anyone even begin to envision where handhelds will be five years from now? Or ten years from now? Or how about twenty-five years from now? It staggers the imagination to even contemplate it.
Whatever the outcome, I sense that the human race is not going back from whence it came. I believe that, by design or randomness, the handheld is a mutation that will prove to be a key turning point in the evolution of man.
But speculations aside, one thing is now certain: The zomieization of humankind is upon us. The only question is where it is leading us. It will be fascinating to watch this digital-soma saga continue to unfold.
What do you think? Is the handheld obsession leading us somewhere good or bad? I need some help figuring this one out.