The weather was lovely, with a warm wind rustling through the treetops. A bird fretted on a branch overhead. The chatter of a few crickets, too impatient to wait for nightfall, surrounded me.
I use my cell phone maybe half a dozen times a month. I hardly ever carry it with me. It was in my pocket then because I didn’t want to miss a call that I was expecting later in the afternoon.
For almost fifteen years I owned a Cingular phone that welcomed me with the word “Hello” in a desperately merry font before seguing into its home screen: a balloon-art space station floating above a Disney-blue planet. It was about five years before I learned how to send a text message on it. It was sturdy phone made of a weighty metal alloy. I lost it at one point, and for a year in a half used a crappy phone I bought at CVS, which seldom worked, until I found the lost Cingular under a couch cushion. I charged it up and it was ready to go again.
Of course, as the horror of what was occurring dawned on me, I quickly closed the phone and slipped it back into my pocket.
Was I in danger of being taken? Was I becoming one of them?
While the experience was still fresh in my mind, I tried to analyze what had happened by reliving, as best I could, that terrible moment. What had gone on? What had I been I thinking? Anything? What had I been feeling? Anything? I hadn’t wanted to make a call, I wasn’t wondering if I had missed a call, there wasn’t anything in my mind nudging me toward the internet (which, anyway, I still don’t know how to access on this device) – why did I take the phone out of my pocket? Again and again I went back to that moment, as viscerally and authentically as I could – that moment when my hand went into my pocket for the phone.
Following this strenuous research, I have come to the conclusion that looking at one’s cell phone is a reflex action, begun in a fraction of a second’s lapse of thought – no different from crossing or re-crossing the legs, reaching for a nearby cup of coffee, scratching an eyelash or an earlobe, clamping the bridge of the nose between thumb and forefinger.
Forgetting about the addictive heaven and hell beyond the menu screen, it seems to me that there is something about the Apple-style menu, that grid of icons that is able to worm its way into the unconscious. It is an squad of itches, lined up waiting to be scratched. I certainly never felt compelled to flip open my Cingular phone for no discernible reason.
I don’t know how the brain works – in fact, I purposefully avoid the subject of neurology (it’s a self-protective reaction) – but I am quite sure that concentric circles of icons or rows of icons radiating inward from the margins would not have the same effect as that four-square array. Perhaps a neurologist could explain what is so pleasurable (for it’s with pleasure that we clamp the bridge of our nose, scratch our ear, sip our coffee, readjust our buttocks) about a glowing space filled a grid of interactive symbols.
Is the human race doomed to the fate imagined by so many science fiction writers of the mid-20th century (probably while wishing they could think of something more original than this overused and improbable trope): becoming the slaves of machines? Or is the integration of the internet and the brain just the next evolutionary step on our way to the hive? Or will there be a reaction, so that some day the surgeon general will require every menu screen to display the warning, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”?