Article Comment 

Slimantics: When 'virtual' is the only reality


Slim Smith



Thursday's edition of The Dispatch will include a story about a group of mostly older women who gather in Columbus once at week to compete in a bowling league. 


Somewhere, there are 20-somethings shaking their heads in amusement: Don't these women have a bowling app on their smartphones?  


At the risk of sounding like the middle-aged guy I am, I am becoming more and more suspicious of the whole smartphone obsession that threatens to make the term "virtual reality" a redundancy. 


At this rate, it seems, all our reality with be virtual. It's not really 2013, you know; it's 1984. 


Last month, the city of San Francisco was rocked by some surveillance footage caught from one of the city's light-rail commuter trains. It showed a man repeatedly flashing a handgun at another passenger. He pulled out the gun, seemed to have second thoughts, and put the gun back in his pocket. He did this several times. No one on the crowded train noticed -- they were all preoccupied with their smartphones -- until the man finally shot his victim when the train stopped and people were exiting. 


This, of course, is a most extreme example of just how obsessed our society has become with our technology. 


But examples are everywhere. I suspect everyone has a story that illustrates just how obsessed we have become. At college football stadiums, cell phone service providers have invested big money in making sure fans can stay connected. This came after officials noticed that the student sections often emptied out if service was not available. 


Personally, I noticed this strange obsession far earlier, roughly six years ago.  


I was at a Starbucks in Tempe, Ariz., one day when, after placing my order, I moved to the end of the bar where people wait for their drinks. Two young ladies, I assumed they were students at nearby Arizona State, were waiting there. Each was busy texting. Being the nosy person I am, I asked one of the girls who she was texting. She looked up from her phone only long enough to roll her eyes and point her finger at the other girl, who was standing about three feet away. 


If there is any merit in the theory of evolution, I suspect that at some point, we will have lost the capacity to speak at all. All of our communication will be conducted through a series of typed messages. Our voices will be reduced to little more than grunts. But we will all have incredible strong and agile fingers. 


Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; Give a man a fish app for his phone and he'll forget he's hungry. 


To a degree, I find that I am being slowly sucked into the technological vortex, too. Even though I don't play games or watch videos, I do find that I always seem to be checking my emails, Facebook messages or reading/sending text or instant messages.  


I have roughly 600 Facebook friends. Of that group, I've probably never actually met a third. Another 100 or so ­ -- old friends from high school -- I haven't seen in more than 35 years. Another 100, I haven't seen in a year or more.  


So most of my Facebook "friends" exists mainly in the ether. 


The grim world of Orwell's "1984" portrayed a time when all relationships were superficial. The innate need to connect to others in a meaningful way has been suppressed through years of conditioning by "Big Brother." Today, I think, Big Brother isn't a government; It's Verizon and T-Mobile and AT&T. Or maybe it's Apple and Samsung. 


While I am attaching no conspiracy to the growing smartphone obsession, I do wonder where we are headed. I do not expect that our fixation will ultimately produce dramatic results such as those found in "1984," but I do think there are costs we have yet to realize. 


I do not deny that the smartphone, and the technology that goes along with it, do not produce some worthwhile benefits. I would be as reluctant as the next guy to give up my phone. 


But I do like the notion of "actual" bowling or golfing or playing cards or participating in a book club than the "virtual" version. 


The ladies in that bowling league, having arrived at maturity before the era of Facebook and Twitter and smartphone apps, have the right idea, I think. They are making human connections, and there's so much of value in that. 


The rest of us? I don't know if we will escape the virtual vortex. 


One thing is clear already, as Orwell said in the closing line of 1984. 


"He loved Big Brother."


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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