Dawn of the Smartphone Cyborgs
Some years back, I read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” on the suggestion of a friend. I ripped through its early pages eagerly (the first act of “Snow Crash” is pretty much all action scenes, and some fairly exquisite world-building), but I got bogged down three-quarters of the way through the book, when the author delivered huge chunks of biblical research as bone-dry exposition. I learned more about the expletive nam-shub of Enki than I ever wanted to know.
Lost in those fragments of Babylon, I began to yearn for a shortcut — a button I could press to fast-forward through Stephenson’s dry lecture. Just because he found this stuff terribly fascinating didn’t mean it had a place among motorcycle-riding samurai swordsmen and their skateboarding action-teen companions.
It was somewhere in midst of that babble that Stephenson introduced Lagos, a character who was constantly wired into the story’s equivalent of the Internet (the “Multiverse”). Other characters disparaged Lagos as a “gargoyle,” someone with one eye on the real world and one far more engaged eye on the information stream. As Lagos speaks to you, he’s looking up every piece on information he can find on you: your tastes, your work history, your closest personal friends. He could wait for you to explain all these things, but then again, why would he want to do that? Best just to skip to the hard data, and to save the both of you a lot of time.
I was as creeped out by Lagos as everyone else in “Snow Crash” was … until this past week, when it occurred to me that my beloved Android phone — the HTC Evo 4G, highly recommended — has made me into every bit the gargoyle that Lagos was. Even way back in 1992, Stephenson recognized that digital information was becoming more portable by leaps and bounds, but perhaps he couldn’t imagine a world in which Apple, Google and Microsoft would unwittingly collude to put a pocket-sized Multiverse in the hands of every person on the planet. In the novel, the tools needed to navigate the computer world are still mostly hooked to walls. If Stephenson could have imagined smartphones, he would have written a somewhat different story, one in which gargoyles were the rule and not the exception.
My smartphone use is through the roof. It isn’t rude or unsafe — I don’t look at my Android when I’m driving, and the phone is turned off the second I enter a movie theater — but I’ve come to depend on that handheld interface in ways that almost shame me when I say them out loud. I can’t enter a new bar, restaurant or club without giving in to the geeky urge to post it to Gowalla, Foursquare or Yelp. Whenever someone has a question about the cast of “Who’s The Boss?” I’m Chachi-on-the-spot with the IMDb app. (“Hang on a minute … oh, here it is. Judith Light.”) In those moments where I used to stare off into space and think — riding on buses, waiting in lines — I now write pithy blog entries or unfunny Tweets. I use it to book Zipcars, look up bus schedules, find happy hours. And I’ve stopped asking the baristas which song is playing at Cupcake Royale; I just fire up SoundHound, and Sleigh Bells begin to ring.
In a very short amount of time, I have become half-machine. The idea of going afield without my Android is kind of unthinkable. How could I hope to function without immediate access to the email that could probably wait the half-hour until I get home? And if I spot a funny yard sale sign or a cute puppy without ready access to a retro-style camera app, can I prove those things really exist?
And I can’t help but wonder what commuting going to look like ten years from today. We’re all of us on the verge of going gargoyle. When I took the Link to the airport last week, I shared the compartment with perhaps sixty other people, nearly all of them glued to their iPhones and BlackBerries. The few holdouts were studying iPads, PSPs and Kindles, and one lone woman read a paper copy of “ReadyMade.” I’m sure that there will still be magazines, telephones and portable gaming in 2020, but I don’t know what kind of handheld device we’ll be using to enjoy them — or whether it’ll be a handheld device at all.
This brings us to a recent episode of “Futurama,” in which the iPhone was sharply parodied. The Planet Express crew caves into the hype surrounding the “eyePhone” — which is installed in just the place you’d suspect — and they spend the entire episode walking around with head-up video displays floating in front of their faces, like so many digital Magrittes. Not only did I recognize myself in that gag, but nearly half of my friends. It gives pause as one imagines the cool, calculating geeks in Mountain View, Cupertino and Redmond watching the funny cartoon characters. No doubt these people they rub their hands together, smile and nod vigorously. Yes, let’s.
If you’ve read this far thinking that I’m going to offer a solution to the dawn of the cyborg age or to create the guide to gargoyle etiquette that Stephenson failed to provide, I’m afraid I’m going to let you down. There’s really no way to stop this thing, short of a “Mad Max”-like post-oil apocalypse — and even in that instance, the heavier smartphones will still work as bludgeons. I reckon we’ll figure out how to discourage rude or unsafe smartphone use while simultaneously finding ways to integrate these devices into ourselves, so we won’t have to put them away as we cut to the chase and draw our samurai swords. I can’t begin to imagine what that Multiverse will be like, but I can tell you this: When that time comes, I’ll be able to tell you which song the cyborg barista is playing.