Magazine June 12, 2017, Issue

The Great Unplugging

Barton Springs salamander (Eurycea sosorum) (Roman Genn)
It will happen any day now . . .

‘That’s quite a salamander! Ha!”

It was a text from a friend, and it seemed innocent enough. And yet it was jarring: Moments before, I had indeed been rambling on about salamanders, but not to said friend, and not in text form. I was talking to my kids, out in the open air of Texas, while tromping down the steps to Austin’s premier salamander habitat and local gem Barton Springs.

The spring-fed public pool, which hovers at a brisk 68 degrees year-round, houses a number of endangered blind salamanders. Lacking both image-forming eyes and lungs, they thrive in the cold waters of the Edwards Aquifer, protected by winsome signs on the banks: Leave only ripples; take only memories.

My smartphone, as it turns out, took more than memories. Unbeknownst to me, it also inadvertently took a voice text, sending my random observations about salamanders found deep in the heart of Texas directly to a bemused friend in Washington, D.C.

First things first: Let’s thank our lucky stars I was discussing salamanders, and not, say, some deep dark secret or my latest plans for a grand Ocean’s Eleven–style bank heist. But there’s a second, more important point to learn from l’affaire salamandre: Smartphones, now almost omnipresent in American life, are getting downright creepy.

You could blame the victim, I suppose, and point out that my general technological incompetence resulted in the accidental salamander text heard halfway round the nation. This is partly true! To this day, I don’t know how to send a purposeful voice text, and I don’t want to know. This is because when it comes to technological issues, my soul is approximately 117 years old.

But my unintentional text set ablaze a greater set of personal suspicions — suspicions I’ve nurtured for some time now. In short, I don’t trust our world’s increasing social-technological connectivity. To Judge from recent cultural trends, I’m not alone.

I have a friend who is a bit of a unicorn in this crazy world, at least when you consider the population under the age of 40: You can’t find him on the Internet. Google his name, and he is a ghost. He has no Facebook account. His vacation photos are not on Instagram; in fact, he might not even know what Instagram is. He does not opine on Twitter’s latest list of insta-outrages. His job requires no corporate biography; once, when out to dinner with mutual friends, I witnessed someone earnestly asking him, after a failed and exhaustive pre-dinner Google search, whether he secretly worked for the CIA.

Just a few years ago, this was completely normal. But today, the lack of an Internet presence — a way for complete strangers around the globe to find you, and find out all about you, which, when you think about it, is kind of bizarre — can make you a startling anomaly. In my friend’s case, it can make you an international man of mystery. And at times, the increasingly rare status of digital homeless person can also make you an object of almost wistful envy.

“Try to pinpoint the last time you took a purposeless walk through the late spring breeze, when there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself,” Michael Brendan Dougherty, now of National Review, recently wrote in The Week, arguing that our vast and eternally humming system of digital machines often makes life worse. “Was it 2007? Or as far back as 1997? Does just asking the question make you feel ill?”

After quietly gurgling for a year or two, a growing backlash against social media and omnipresent technology appears on the verge of full boil. Bill Gates made headlines recently by declaring that his children weren’t allowed smartphones until the age of 14 and that he banned them during dinner. A flow of studies linking social-media use to depression and lowered self-esteem — and on the perils of smartphone “addiction” — bubbles up in the news at an increasing rate each week. Wait Until 8th, a grassroots movement to keep children smartphone-free until eighth grade, now has pledges in more than 100 schools in 26 states.

Or witness the critically acclaimed Black Mirror, a British import now shown on Netflix. The science-fiction series, which viewers have compared to the early Twilight Zone, showcases various Hollywood stars — Jon Hamm and Bryce Dallas Howard made recent appearances — while exploring the perils of technology in brutal detail. “In case you had forgotten that we live in a technology-riddled wasteland almost certainly bound for doom,” wrote Aubrey Page at Collider, an entertainment website, “Black Mirror is here to remind you.”

In one episode, optioned by Robert Downey Jr. for a future movie with Warner Brothers, citizens have a device implanted behind their ear to record their unfolding lives, allowing them to project an alternative reality — made up of their own memories — when they see fit. Relationships shatter; disaster slowly unfolds. Other Black Mirror episodes have featured social-media hashtags leading to death and destruction, digital blackmail, tech-enabled emotional emptiness, and general futuristic awfulness in all sorts of sordid stripes.

The series sticks, of course, because today’s technological truth is often stranger than fiction. Just a few years ago, the biggest Facebook-related peril involved awkward friend requests from dicey high-school acquaintances or that aunt who keeps sending you last year’s memes. Fast forward to this May, when Facebook announced it was hiring 3,000 people — that’s on top of an existing dedicated staff of 4,500 people — to “review videos of crime and suicides,” as the Associated Press reported, “following murders shown live.” Caramba.

Meanwhile, in an internal company report leaked to the Australian, a newspaper, Facebook executives noted that they can monitor when teenagers feel “stressed,” “defeated,” or “worthless,” while former company insiders report on the network’s massive personal-data-collection capabilities.

This, quite obviously, is where our reaction should reasonably shift from “What a nice place to share baby pictures!” to “Run away! Run awaaaaay!” But, not an organization easily cowed, Facebook recently announced that it was already shoulder-deep in developing helpful tools for “augmented reality,” as well as, according to the Telegraph, “technology that will allow people to directly send their thoughts over the Internet.”

As you digest this news, please excuse me, friends, while I take a short break to throw my computer out the window and into the hedges, which are quite spiky, or maybe even into my neighbor’s pool.

[Note to editor: Insert lively elevator music — or, even better, a Muzak rendition of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” — here.]

Okay, I’m back! As you can tell, I’m still typing, so, alas, I have clearly fallen short of my goal. I’m sure my various social-media networks can sense both my outer failure and my inner despair.

Let’s move on to The Circle, the new film starring Tom Hanks, who plays a quasi-evil tech guru, and Emma Watson, who stars as Emma Watson. Based on a 2013 book by Gen-X favorite Dave Eggers, the movie is reportedly a clunky and disastrous mess, but the theme still resonates: an invasive, all-knowing social network gone awry, ultimately aiming for world domination.

It’s all so dramatic, isn’t it? But here is where things go off the rails, reality-wise: Our culture’s backlash against social media, while simmering quite nicely, isn’t driven by the screaming Scots of Braveheart but by a group that more closely resembles the characters in Seinfeld or The Office. We all know our social ties to technology are absurd, but for the most part, we still play along — sometimes griping, sometimes giddy. This digital clutch is largely voluntary. No one is forcing our hand. The great unplugging is always just over the horizon.

– Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




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