January 25, 2010
Having Tablets on the Brain
Do our habits directly affect our evolution as homo sapiens? Is there any truth to the modern myth that the dominant digit for the millennial generation is the thumb rather than the forefinger? Are our grandchildren going to become so light sensitive that they'll not worry about UV radiation from the Sun as much as they worry about the blindness inducing brightness of a clear and sunny day? These questions were tumbling through my mind as I rode the subway into Toronto's financial district very early this morning. On the seat in front of me, an office worker was reading a Tom Clancy novel on a Kindle reader. To my right, another was messing around with his Blackberry, likely scheduling appointments and figuring out how his week would work out. Vaguely pretending to read a dead-tree newspaper, I spied on my neighbors as the train sped between stations. Toronto's underground transit system is over sixty years old. While the trains are updated and upgraded every decade or so, the tunnels and rail bed were built in the 1950s. Sometimes, as the train moves through a tunnel, the lights go on and off leaving only the tunnel lighting to provide a shadowy glimmer within the train. Everyone reading print on paper immediately looks upwards towards the overhead lights in the vain hope their glares will magically illuminate them. Nobody reading an electronic device noticed or cared, at least, that's what their blue tinged faces appeared to suggest. The Blackberry dude was able to amuse himself for several stations as he typed, rolled and tabbed himself towards a Zen like state of electronic organization. The man with the Kindle was focused on whatever dangers Clancy was putting his protagonist through. An older fellow with a laptop and sweater vest seemed a bit smug for a second but given he was wearing a sweater vest in the first place, that might just be his normal appearance. Aside from the man with the Kindle, everyone with an electronic device on my train looked as if they were working. They had the set faces of people determined to make something of their days, even though their in-office work days had not actually begun. My assumption is they probably do this everyday. The lights flashed back on and I continued to read my newspaper. So what does it mean to be constantly connected to an increasingly smaller segment of society? While the Internet allows us far broader cultural and social interaction, our use of it tends towards making immediate and often mundane work easier and faster, thus insuring we receive a greater number of immediate and often mundane tasks to perform for work every day. Could this be a reason why I find most people increasingly impatient and even more mundane than before? I am bettering myself as I read my dead tree newspaper. I am actively informing myself with the goal of being the best participant in my peaceable little democracy as I possibly can be. That's what I was telling myself as I was sort of jealous that the guy in front of me had a Kindle and I don't. (I don't feel the least bit jealous of the Blackberry dude, though as I recall, he did have nice shoes.) I realize I am thinking this way because I am reading an article about the hype surrounding the expected unveiling of the Apple Tablet computing device later this week. I have to admit, I'm excited about what everyone seems to think is going to be launched. I do dig change, even if it makes me and those around me uncomfortable and even when it comes at the great expense of thousands of dollars. As soon as an Apple Tablet hits the store shelves near me, I'm almost certainly going to dive on the bandwagon, buy me one of those things, and racially change the way I relate to the depths of information around me. In other words, I wasn't really thinking about society as much as I was thinking about myself. Typical... Along those lines goes a famous self-attributed quote, "I am truly interested in change. Ask any of my ex-girlfriends." Like dating a new person, where change takes us as individuals is virtually anyone's guess. My best bet says we'll do a lot of what we do today but in a different and likely faster way. That doesn't mean we'll be more efficient, smarter or better able to practically use information, it just means we'll have a neater tool with which to make, monitor and manipulate that information. Subway rides, on which one can have some of their most interesting meditations, will become an exercise in personal efficiency. The moment menus at fine restaurants are displayed on portable devices rather than printed in a leather-bound booklet is the moment fine dining conversation is socially displaced by yet another YouTube video. There will be good and bad but the most obvious things that will come from Wednesday's Apple announcement will spell more changes in the way we work, read, recreate and entertain ourselves. Less obvious changes happen over time. We'll see how tablet computing will affect us as individuals and as a society. There is only one thought I had on the train ride I know to be absolutely true. "I don't care if he's an early adopter, or if I'm almost of a certain age," I thought to myself, "there's no way I'm ever wearing a sweater vest."