being "learned"

i try to keep a little moleskine journal with me at all times. in it i write lists, thoughts and feelings, reminders, and things i hear others say that i want to come back to. in looking back over the last several recorded quotes i found this gem shared by the ceo of blackberry’s rim, regarding their newest phone, released in february of this past year. “this device learns you...learns your personality. after one week, it knows you.” i felt odd when i first read it and even more so now. largely because i believe it to be true.

i’ve noticed that both my computer and phone know me well. better than i ever imagined they would. spell check doesn’t auto correct “doreen” to “Doreen” anymore and is no longer confused by my frequently used “ugh” and “arg” exclamations. i’m reminded of calendar items with incredible consistency, push notifications suggest spots i might enjoy along my walk, and my basic searches are anticipated with frightening accuracy. yesterday i had only gotten to the “i” in “short list” when “2014 oscar documentary category” filled in for me. that was exactly what i was looking for. i hadn’t been searching anything related to award shows or documentaries and yet, based on all the data i’ve provided in the past, my search engine guessed what i might be looking for based on 7 letters: short li.

i’m guessing you’ve had this happen as well. when you have, have you stopped to consider how amazing it is? this tiny computer (with massive capabilities) that you carry in your backpack (laptop) or back pocket (phone) knows you. it caters to you. it makes your life easier and assumes that you and your preferences/patterns/choices truly are the center of the universe. this makes these devices far more desirable as companions than real (pesky) people who come complete with their own preferences/patterns/choices/inconsistencies.

more and more it seems to me that we are attaching to our devices with a similar kind of emotion we experience when we attach to people. increasingly unable to be alone with our selves, we use our phones (and/or laptops) to engage us, entertain us, or to connect us to others in a weird sort of “arms length” way. don’t want to commit to a whole coffee date with someone but don’t feel capable of sitting at a table alone looking up and around, we text and facebook our way through our cup of joe. uncomfortable at the thought of standing in line and letting our minds wander we adopt the new national posture, head down, arms bent, hands curled around a small glowing screen displaying never ending images seemingly more engaging than those around us. we have siri type messages and make calls. all the while we teach our devices to know us better and to cater to us more effectively

about a year ago a movie called “robot and frank” was released, telling the story of an aging ex-jewel thief whose children procure a caretaking robot to help him in his declining years. frank develops a deep and complex connection to his robot and faces difficult ethical and relational choices throughout the film. in a few weeks, “her” will be released telling the story of a young man who falls deeply in love with his operating system. both of these films are said to take place in the “not too distant future.” 

the thing is...i feel quite certain that these realities are here now. we have fallen deeply in love with our devices (and, if not “in love,” then most certainly “in dependence upon”). more young adults than i can count have told me that they feel a sexual surge associated with the “powering on” sound of their phone or laptop. not only do these devices deliver the porn that is so often their norm but they also contain the primary place of connection to everyone and every thing they love. equally frequent is the reported surge of anger experienced by the partner of an individual who is addicted to their device, consistently choosing time with their phone or computer to time with their spouse/friend/partner. possibly even more wide spread than these reactions is the simple experience of mild to severe anxiety that many feel when they accidentally leave their device behind for a period of time. (e.g: how will i get directions? how will i let people know where i am? how will i take a picture? know the time? find my way? update my status?)

our devices have become pseudo partners of sorts. years ago we pulled cell phones out of our pockets in order to look important. they made us appear cool and connected and significant. no longer, however, do we pull them out. instead, we carry them constantly as extensions of ourselves, no longer making us look important but, instead, making us feel complete. there’s no need for silence or discomfort or unknown or awkward or human encounter or wandering/wondering. it’s all there for us...all the information, entertainment, distraction, and even people we could ever want in the palms of our hands. we can turn them on or off at will. start 10 texted conversations at once and leave them whenever we want. know when someone has received and read our message so that we can resent them when they don’t respond immediately.  get exact directions to the location we desire without any need to navigate. watch all the youtube clips possible without ever tapping-in to our own creative imagination. immerse ourselves in the environs of endless games (crush candy, fling birds, and all other manner of mindless activities) never knowing what is really going on around us.

it is up to us how connected we are to the devices we carry. we are just as responsible for our relationships with them as we are for the relationships we maintain with entities that have beating hearts and breathing lungs. the former are based solely upon our myopic “button pushing” and the patterns created therein. the latter are less of a sure thing. by engaging these embodied relationships we might, at times, be bored or look awkward or get lost. we might try a restaurant we end up not liking or miss an opportunity to better our score or need to ask the person next to us to teach us something. this might provide for the rich (and often unknown/out of control) opportunity to “learn from” the silence, the spaciousness, the neighbor, the world, and the experiences around us rather than relying on “being learned.” this might matter because, while being learned well makes for an interesting movie, in the long run it just might make for a very unfulfilling (and possibly even un-lived) life.

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