February 2012

Volume 27 Number 02

Don't Get Me Started - Ring Around My Neck

By David Platt | February 2012

David PlattThis column marks the start of my third year ranting in this space as MSDN Magazine’s designated curmudgeon. On reflection, I’d call this the biennium of the smartphone, which has crossed over from technophile early adopters to the middle class mainstream. I drank the Kool-Aid and got mine last summer, the day before Verizon shut off its unlimited data plan. Now, like any proud geek, I whip out my phone and demonstrate my cool apps at the slightest excuse, annoying the heck out of everyone else. (“Have you seen this flashlight app? I use it at night, when I’m fumbling for my keys and …”)

Whenever you buy an expensive toy, you start noticing people who have the same thing. Take a look at the picture (below) I took last summer at a commuter rail station near Boston. Every one of the waiting passengers has his or her nose stuck into a palmtop device. I did too, until I noticed the others around me, and surfaced long enough to snap the picture. I wonder how long it’ll be before someone drifts onto the tracks and gets crushed like a bug. 

We laugh at the Microsoft commercial of the guy checking his phone at the urinal (bit.ly/ufvwyW), but I see that every day. And I have seen them get dropped in, more than once. Really.

I wish I had Superman’s X-ray vision to spy on my fellow travelers and their gadgets. How many are doing mundane tasks such as paying bills, how many are joining brain power with others into a super-human Overmind, and how many are just looking at dirty pictures?

What is wrong with us? Can we not be alone with our thoughts for the five minutes it takes the train to arrive? Can we not contemplate the summer leaves, or the concept of railroads, or our families, or tonight’s dinner? Do we have to stream action videos every instant? Have we irretrievably devolved from admiring a fellow commuter’s sleek figure and wondering how much she paid for her clothes, to admiring her sleek Droid Razr and wondering how much she pays for her data plan?

“Daddy, I hope you’re not going to become one of those boring geeks who always has his nose in his phone,” said my daughter, 11, who desperately wants one of her own.

I try, but I’m astounded how difficult it is. Like Frodo in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” carrying the One Ring of Power around his neck, I find my hand creeping toward my smartphone, and I have to exert a conscious effort to refrain from pulling it out at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Boston’s transportation authority had to ban even the possession of a cell phone while on duty, as employees seem unable to refrain from using them and causing crashes (bit.ly/u4D8Yg). Do we need Gollum to save us from ourselves by biting these things out of our hands?

My phone does the opposite of the Ring—instead of making me invisible to others, it makes them invisible to me. This self-encapsulation started with the Sony Walkman 30 years ago, when we started playing music in headphones to isolate ourselves from our surroundings.

We retreat from physical society and join a virtual one. Former Economist editor Frances Cairncross called this process “The Death of Distance” in her book of that title. But as technology closes the distance between people around the world, it simultaneously creates distance between people in close proximity.

Our smartphones cast a strange field that attracts our hands strongly within a range of about a meter, like the strong nuclear force. It then repels other people out to a range of about 5 meters, like similar electrical charges. The field then attracts people with similar interests, out to infinity like gravity, but doesn’t vary with distance. I’ve discovered the fifth fundamental force of physics. My Nobel Prize awaits.

Our thoughts bounce around the world but bypass the people sitting with us on the couch or standing next to us on the train platform, the ones we’re sharing food with or competing for food against.

This much I know: When my daughter sends me a text message at dinner asking me to pass the salt, things have gone too far.

David Platt looked up from his smartphone during his commute one morning and took this snapshot.

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.