Mobile madness is our most ridiculous epidemic

When did we become so dependent on devices? And is there any hope of breaking the addiction? Cringely sees few signs of a cure

digital health

As you might expect, when I heard about the glitzy new Microsoft Band, I rushed to the Microsoft Store to check one out. Units were scarce, but I showed the salesperson my .38-caliber press card and he let me try a review unit immediately.

I was a little disappointed with its engineering, as it immediately pronounced me dead. On the upside, it was very informative on cause of death, showing a Christmas tree of indicator lights that confirmed I took my dirt nap due to gross alcohol consumption and a cholesterol count that basically renders me a cheese wheel with feet. It also told me I was very mobile for a corpse during my mad dash from the cops investigating the press card mix-up.

While I was on the lam at McGinty’s Mobility Futility Pub, I started contemplating our new dependence on gadgets. What spawned this dependence on all items small, rectangular, and glowing that seems to have infested the brains of every consumer in the Western hemisphere? I’m a tech journalist, so reviewing gadgets allows me to pay my exorbitant rent and feed my scotch habit. But what’s everyone else’s excuse? Or maybe “excuse” isn’t the right word. How about “rabid, mouth-frothing addiction”?

Saner days

When I was a boy, the most inventive phone we had was shaped like a football and was good for a short chuckle and a tired, disapproving look from Mom. When touch dialing went mainstream, we were happy in a “gee, that’s nice” sort of way. Answering machines were the next big thing followed by pagers, but long lines of nongeek consumers never hunkered down days on end to get their hands on the latest messaging unit. What happened? I camped out overnight for Journey tickets once, and given the completely deflating concert experience, I never did it again.

A decade or two ago, I wrote skeptical articles about the personal area network (PAN) concept invented by PDA manufacturers. Everyone knew those things would eventually morph into phones, so we’d still carry only one device. PAN was a blatant marketing ploy and we treated it accordingly -- more the fools we.

Back then, PDAs were for geeks. Nowadays, carrying the latest gadget has become a social kudo, especially if you can claim that you forced a hapless assistant to pee in his Starbucks cup all night while homesteading for you. The PAN isn’t a laughable myth anymore -- it’s become many consumers’ mission in life, and it’s an expensive mission growing ever costlier as time goes on.

At what price convenience?

What bothers me most is the frivolity of these devices. Is there enough difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 that it’s worth another $200 and clubbing an old lady to move up one space in line? So you get a higher pixel count on the camera, a higher-def screen that lets you watch TV with a 3-by-6-inch picture instead of 2-by-4, and a slightly faster CPU that sucks battery life like a starving vampire.

The apps powered by those extra CPUs are sometimes innovative, but most people I know simply run games to pass the time on trains, maybe fire up the tip calculator if they've failed elementary math, and zone out on miscellaneous entertainment apps to kill time. If you're taking care of personal finances on these devices and their patchy security capabilities -- well, you deserve what happens to you.

Microsoft sticks Office on all its phones and keeps advertising the ability to edit ever bigger PowerPoint slides and longer Word documents while you’re “on the go.” Who does that? If I need to write while traveling, I do it when I have 20 minutes to myself in an airport lounge or, more likely, a bar. That’s notebook time, not phone time. I only look at my phone when I’m actually moving, and doing any sort of work that way means a statistically high chance of walking into a light pole or a homeless startup VC.

These manufactured and absurdly unnecessary scenarios invented by hopped-up mobile marketers aren't the only annoyance. It’s the huge swath of the population that will gather in front of the AT&T store every few months and climb over each other like zombies going after brains in search of the latest blinking rectangle, though it’s only marginally different from the rectangle they already have.

Now I’m supposed to plunk down $200 for a wrist band that tells my phone, which tells my earpiece, how far I’ve jogged and how much I sweated in the process? I don’t need to know how many miles I’ve jogged. I measure that in terms of how far I hobble before I keel over and hack up my last three meals. Informing me how much I slept? I don’t know if the brainiacs at Microsoft remember, but that’s what a clock is for, and I certainly don’t need Cortana whispering it to me on my way to work.

Maybe I’m devolving into a Luddite in my old age, but this annoying trend shows no signs of cooling off. I picture my niece and nephew in 20 years begging Mom and Pop for $1,000 because they spent their college tuition money over six months -- by then, that’s how long it’ll take Apple to toss out three generations of the same gadget. Add addictions to wrist bands, glasses, smart shoes, and talking underwear and the next generation will go broke long before they get stiffed by Social Security. On the upside, maybe their augmented reality glasses will make the refrigerator box they live in look like a mansion.

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