I take my brisk daily walk listening to radio talk on a Walkman-like device or to podcasts including “Left, Right and Center,” “Studio 360,” “Radiolab,” “Motley Fool Money” and so on.
So, striding along recently I heard someone in my ear buds say something could never happen. I didn’t agree and said aloud, “Oh yes it can.” Probably pretty loudly since those doodads in your ears don’t let you gauge your own volume.
It was loud enough to make a woman on the other side of the street walking her dog swivel her head toward me, probably thinking I was yelling at her for some reason. Seeing I wasn’t she smiled slightly and carried on as if nothing had happened. I deduced that she had seen the gizmos in my ears and realize I was plugged into a different reality. My ear tech sent a social message.
Not long ago a man striding along the street yelling, or carrying on an animated conversation with thin air, or simply loudly wailing incomprehensible gibberish off-key would have been given a wide berth at the very least. He might have found burly men in uniform throwing a net over him and hustling him off for observation.
Today these antics are normal. He isn’t off his meds; he’s on his Bluetooth, talking to the office or stock broker, singing along with Kanye or Rihanna or, in my case, talking back to talk radio. The weird antisocial world created by all our devices is now taken for granted, even celebrated. Never better than in the fantastic Apple ad from last Christmas.
In it, the family arrives for a snowy visit to the grandparents. Among them is a nerdy teen who spends the whole time in the corner fixated with glazed eyes on his iPhone rather than on the festivities like everyone else. Until the punch line. Turns out he wasn’t a recessive loser in a world of his own but a tech genius who was recording the entire holiday and editing it into a video love poem to the family that he plays for them on the giant flat screen. There isn’t a dry eye in the house.
This is sheer genius. It had the duel effect of a) validating the immersion of nerds everywhere in gear in preference to people and b) persuading the oldsters their creepy gameboy grandson is not the next isolated loner likely to go postal but is the next Steve Jobs or Steven Spielberg likely to make a fortune. It must have sold a lot of units.
I’m not quite sure it captures reality, of course. In fact I’m pretty sure a lot of introverts on the internet are not going to be tech superstars but are going to remain socially inept sad sacks marooned in their parents’ basements. I’m also pretty sure at least a few days a week I should take my walk while chatting with family or neighbors rather than carry on conversations with my imaginary media friends.
Insofar as we are all increasingly isolated in our self-made tech bubbles we are not part of a larger community of actual humans. And cozy as it is, a virtual reality isn’t the actual reality. Despite its annoyances, so-called real life is also enlivened by human interactions – blood, sweat and tears perhaps, but also love, affection, give and take. Like space in “Gravity,” cyberspace may be a nice place to visit but a far too inhospitable and alien place to live full time.