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Turn me on/turn me off

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11/21/2011

Blair Chavis photo

I had a Blackberry on death row after getting the battery wet and needed a new phone desperately. I'd been waiting for countless months until the new iPhone came out. But, I contemplated buying an iPhone with trepidation, because I've killed nearly every phone I've owned with water, by way of sewer grate, washing machine and the list goes on. My Blackberry went from its normal state of dropping calls, to going midnight black whenever I spoke with someone for more than five minutes. I love to talk and found myself tragically "speechless."

I drank the Apple Kool-Aid after using a Mac laptop at my last job and after observing friends coo over their iPhones. For most of my life I've been a PC girl. But, when I was little, my family had an Apple IIGS. I could play Wheel of Fortune on it, and a very ghetto avatar of Vanna White would clap. At school, I lived out my thrill-seeking elementary school days playing Oregon Trail in the computer lab with classmates. When I was in junior high, I found it mind boggling that I could talk with friends via AOL Instant Messenger on dial-up. In 2011, here I was making my triumphant return to Apple ownership, and in an anticlimactic turn, Apple delivered the 4S iPhone and not the 5 version. The iPhone 5 was rumored to have a 3D pop-out screen and a 3D pop-out light-keyboard.

I got my mitts on the 4S, and Siri and I are quickly falling in love. She's not perfect, but she can read me my text messages and deliver them too. If I tell her, "I love you," she has sarcastic and delightful responses like "Oh, stop," "You are the wind beneath my wings" and "Our love of each other is like two long shadows kissing without hope of reality." She proves that technology can be simultaneously frightening, poetic and wistful. Siri is my sassy robot BFF.

The Blackberry ("Crackberry") and the iPhone have been blamed for people's deteriorating social skills and newfound inability to disconnect from work. Now that I've joined the Apple cult, I can report that the iPhone is both amazing and creepy. Not only can I tell my phone robot what to do, I can choose to never disconnect myself from social media, and my phone can geographically track my every move, including where I am when taking photographs. Perhaps we should start shaking the "Apple" tree to find Big Brother. 

The same week I got the phone, I went on a work trip to Los Angeles to attend a fabulously nerdy blog and technology conference. I found myself surrounded by thousands of "computer geeks" who totally got what I was only beginning to comprehend after emerging from my apparent Blackberry rock. As per usual, attendees sat through sessions like school children in study hall passing notes via Twitter. I've been on "the Twitter," as my Twitter-challenged friends like to call it; I understand its perks. But, who was really listening to the sessions? Who's listening to each other while tweeting at dinner, posting to Facebook while with friends or playing "Angry Birds" at parties?  

Guy Kawasaki, who worked closely with Steve Jobs at Apple, spoke at the conference about how Google+ is the future. It's predicted, he said, that everything we do on the Internet will ultimately converge into one complex, indexed Google identity. To reluctantly quote Melissa Gorga from the Real Housewives of New Jersey, everything we do is literally "on display."

If you've recovered from gagging, think about reality TV's growth alongside the expansion of our capabilities on the Internet and alongside our growing desire to showcase ourselves via social media. Facebook, which started when I was a sophomore or junior in college, is so embedded in our collective culture now; people now want to be stars in their own lives. I think we're increasingly finding ourselves in a voyeuristic feedback loop with little substance. Rarely have people commented on the prevalent social media and reality TV freak shows until Kim Kardashian's wedding-divorce debacle, resulting in the first substantial public outcry I've witnessed. 

I can ask Siri to think for me. I can tell my car to unlock for me. I can tell my TiVo to tape for me. Meanwhile, I can't get my mail courier to drop off my mail when my door label falls off. I think artificial intelligence is making some of us dumber. The pace at which we consume information is making us impatient. The monetary and social capital we afford to those without talent is too great. Our priorities are all off. I love my new phone, but I think it's making me more ADD than my Blackberry did. I am part of a generation with more information at our fingertips than ever before, yet I think many of us are overloaded and lack the drive, and perhaps the mental muscles, for skepticism.

I grew up with the weekly observance of Shabbat in my home and Friday night dinners were a break from the week's distractions, when my family and I could enjoy a long meal together with real conversation. Now, I don't often observe the Sabbath unless I'm visiting my family or attending a Jewish event. However, my roommate, with a modern Orthodox background, has sought out new ways to observe. She has stayed overnight with either a rabbi's family or an Orthodox family for Shabbat, after connections she made through a Jewish educational group. Recently, she went to the family's house and spent the night with other guests to observe the Sabbath. She and the guests didn't necessarily know each other or the hosts very well. In observance of the Sabbath, my roommate reported that she and others "unplugged"-they had a 24-hour break from cell phones and computers. My roommate said staying with these families provided a meaningful connection; she spent time with their children and enjoyed a meal that lasted several hours with rich conversation. She described it as becoming part of the family, relaxing and escaping from technology. She said "unplugging" helped her to feel engaged and connected.  

It's scarcely fathomable for many of us to put our phones in "airplane mode" while flying, let alone unplug completely. My roommate placed herself in a situation where she didn't know the hosts and guests, and let herself get to know them without Google stalking, Facebook stalking, Twitter and the like. Perhaps it's archaic by modern standards, but people have been getting to know each other in real life ("IRL" for you acronym geeks) for centuries. Our online personas sometimes create an artificial blockade and we can't just talk without researching each other first.

I'm not shaking my finger at technology or social media. The out-pouring of emotion and sentiments after Steve Jobs' passing speaks to a global desire to stay "connected." And, Siri might take over the world someday, after all. (Don't anger the robots.) However, I miss some of what makes us human, too.

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