All That & Siri, Too

It began with the iPhone I bought in January.

I’d wanted one for years. But at $400+, it wasn’t at the top of my shopping list. So I stuck with my $50 features phone. Who cared that the flimsy plastic back flew off every time the phone slipped from my hands and onto the floor. Or that hard-to-push buttons built muscles I didn’t even know I had in my thumbs. My cell and computer let me do all the talking I needed — so I thought.

I knew one other quasi-Luddite, a university colleague who studied the English Renaissance and owned a flip phone even older than mine. Brian’s pleasure lay in “resisting the system.” In practice, this meant not only dispensing with smartphones but also avoiding social media. He was my very own Neo: Matrix unplugged and proud.

Cut-rate cell phones made us comrades-in-arms. But Brian still made me feel guilty as hell. Unlike him, I'd sold out to both Twitter and Facebook.

“I don’t use them often,” I told him once, hoping that a near-derelict Twitter account could balance out my weekly Facebook sins.

“Dump them, join forces with us!” He was laughing, but Brian’s zeal still seemed evangelical.

My colleague wanted to shield personal information from data miners looking to make a buck and keep smartphone satellites out of his business. I just wanted do things on the cheap. If I could avoid Big Brother, that was a bonus.

Three months later after my purchase and more than a year after my conversation with Brian, I took the plunge into the Matrix-like world of total connectivity. Falling head over feet into a place with no beginning and no end, I now see my life as falling into two distinct periods: Before the Rabbit Hole (BRH) and After the Rabbit Hole (ARH).

BRH I was the Jurassic-era alien who relied on email and made distinctions between the online and the offline. By contrast, the smartphone users around me texted, chatted and data-scrolled while trying to exist in a place that sometimes required they pay attention. To their feet and where they walked. To the street in front of them and where they drove. To the person trying to look them in the face and have a conversation with them.

Homo cyborgs, I'd say to myself. All thumbs and no focus. At school, if I dared disconnect my students from their gadgets in class or took the phones from them, they looked at me in pain. It was like I was amputating an arm or leg.

And maybe I was. BRH I had no sympathy for anyone with an added electronic appendage. They struck me as multi-tasking, instant gratification addicts with no self-discipline. I kept my handset at home. Calls could wait. So could social media updates. Somehow, the world would manage.

ARH my phone travels with me. It counts my steps, charts my way across town, pinpoints the location of every iPhone picture I take and post online.  I even take it out during class breaks to check messages across several online platforms including Facebook, a resurrected Twitter feed and a new Instagram account. When it's not with me, I reach for it like a phantom limb. 

Who needs privacy when you've got all that and an incipient case of ADD to boot?

And if my eyes need a rest, my AI assistant Siri that can talk to me. It — or should I say “she” since I decided she would speak with a woman’s voice — is surprisingly clever, even sarcastic. Once I asked her to tell me a bedtime story.

“In the great green dimension,” she began, “there was an iPhone. And a red balloon. And a picture of…a Zoltaxian cow jumping over the third moon.” A smirk (or so I imagined) skittered across the features of her virtual face.

When I asked her to tell me another story, the smirk turned snarky. “Then you’ll be asking me for a glass of milk and a dark matter cookie,” she said.