Today’s society of gadget lovers reflects our artificial need to be perpetually connected
The two important stories of the technology world this week are the respective debuts of the Microsoft Surface and the iPad Mini. Surface is one of Microsoft’s first forays into hardware in the company’s storied history. Its main selling point is its cover, which doubles as a keyboard and built-in kickstand, allowing it to transform from a tablet to a laptop. Microsoft is touting this as a revolutionary leap in consumer electronics; I am touting this as a good marketing ploy, since keyboard and kickstand combos are already common for current tablets. Meanwhile, the iPad Mini, in a stunning display of inventiveness from Apple, is a smaller version of the iPad, which in turn is pretty much a larger version of the iPhone. For whom is the iPad Mini, exactly? Goldilocks? But no matter my opinions about the lack of innovation; either way, you can bet that both the Surface and the iPad Mini will sell millions of units.
Why do we tell Apple and Microsoft, “Shut up and take my money?” There is no doubt that computers rank up there with the greatest inventions in history and that they are incredibly useful; but so is the refrigerator, and you do not see press releases for Maytag’s newest and finest. Advertisements for the Surface point to the reason. One ad features a dancing ensemble and the Surface being used as a percussion instrument. Another ad takes place in a vaguely science-fiction room and has the tablet suspended in midair; the camera then shifts to an extreme close-up of an eye in intense focus and wonder, gazing at the tablet visible in its reflection. The message is obvious: Surface is something to be excited about; surface is the future.
But then this brings the question of why gadget chic exists in the first place. For what do we use computers outside of work? We use computers to brag to our friends on Facebook how awesome last night was, to purvey 140-character wisdom on Twitter, to look at adorable cats on Reddit. Thus it is apparent that we are smitten with consumer electronics not because they are useful — which they definitely are — but because they are an outlet for cheap gratification. That in itself is not bad; the world would be a dull place if all we could talk about is how great freezer-icemaker combos are. But it is apparent that we give undue attention to luxuries like consumer electronics. Perhaps that fact is unclear because its effects are not yet fully manifest. Let us see a vision of the future, then, shall we?
In Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” the world is a technological utopia where the desire for cheap gratification is completely fulfilled. Citizens of the World State, as it is known, get to watch feelies, the evolution of movies; play exciting games like Reimann Surface Tennis; take a recreational drug called soma for when they’re feeling down; have no-strings-attached sex with pretty much anyone. Utopia it may be ostensibly, but the World State is spiritually barren. All traces of intimacy with other people have been eradicated, may be it family, friendship or love. No one reads books or pursues any intellectual endeavor. It is a world enslaved by entertainment.
Now granted, the World State is an extrapolation that takes place far into the future; but it cannot extrapolate if it does not reflect what has already existed in our society. People eat together but do not talk to each other because they are glued to their phones; we feel disconnection anxiety when we haven’t checked our Facebook or Twitter in a while. With the advent of the mass media, we are fast becoming an a-literate society, one that eschews Hemingway for the remote control. Will the iPhone 17 play some small-screen equivalent on the feelies? Will we ultimately sacrifice intimacy, intellectualism and other noble pursuits to the altar of cheap gratification?
To clarify, I am not a Luddite. I do not plan on raiding Foxconn factories in China so that Apple cannot make its iProducts and thus liberate the masses from pictures of adorable cats. Heck, I am a Computer Science major; I plan to make a living working with computers. But I do think it is important that we recognize the nature of our relationship with technology and our unhealthy anxiety with being disconnected from technology, especially the online world.
Incidentally, recognition is the first of the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Call addiction too strong of a word — if it is not true now, then it will be in the near future lest we remain complacent and blissfully unaware of our path to a Brave New World.
_Rolph Recto’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at