Mobile Me (Can't Escape Anymore)
Well, I've finally gone and done it. Thirty years late, I've joined mobile media nation. After Christmas, I picked up my first Sony Playstation Portable (PSP), and last week, on my way to an incredible conference on Technology and Christian Faith (more on that in later posts), I picked up an iPod Touch. I hope I don't lose myself--every technology that I adopt makes a new me.
To be honest, I'd been semi-mobile for the last half-decade due to my conversion from desktop to laptop, and I had picked up a pay-as-you-go cell phone a couple of years ago. But you don't put a laptop in your pocket, and mine doesn't fire up instantly in any case. And I use my cellphone maybe once a month. I'm a bit of an odd duck this way: I suppose a professor of new media culture shouldn't admit he hadn't sent a text message until May of 2010. But the fact is, I've always been mobile averse, and in the last decade I've kept it that way on purpose.
I loved music, but the Walkman (intro'd in 1979, when I was in kindergarten, and ubiquitous and cheap by the time I cared about pop music) never really appealed to me. I was a huge gamer, but I never had a Game & Watch, GameBoy, or Game Gear (or, for that matter, any other failedportablegamesystem). I resisted cell phones for a long time, and I've never had a PDA or smart phone. In each case, expense has always played a role: I'm Dutch, and I'm cheap. But there have always been other reasons too. With the Walkman, I'm not sure: I think I don't like being totally aurally isolated from the outside world (although I'm not uncomfortable with blaring speakers, so that might not be it). I hate small screens--thus, portable gaming systems never appealed to me.
But there's a bigger reason that looms over them all, and it's the one that paradoxically attracts me to mobile media: the everywhere-always-on feature. Today's mobile media mean that you never have to be away from anything. Starting in the late 90s or so, you could make yourself available for conversation all the time (at an affordable price) via the cell phone. And with the advent of smartphones and mobile data plans, I can get the Internet (and thus, anything else) anywhere too. I love the Internet. The idea of being able to read The Cult of Hockey while carpooling home from work is undeniably appealing. But, of course, the flip side is: I'm never forced to leave. This is really important.
I think many people have so normalized the cell phone and mobile internet access that they've ceased to notice this. But I'm hyper-aware of it right now. Until I picked up mobile gaming and multimedia devices, there were times when I couldn't play video games, couldn't read webcomics, couldn't do email. Now, while I don't have universal internet access (I got an iPod, not an iPhone), there's always something calling to me. And if you've got a cell phone, people can interrupt you, talk to you whenever, wherever. I don't desire this in my life. I want spaces that are sacred, presences that are physical (not digital), and times that work does not intrude. You can have these things when you have a good smartphone and a killer data package. But it takes a lot more discipline than if I didn't have the mobile techs.
And this is the point: technology pushes, prods and shapes. It is not undeniable, it is not our master, but it is also not neutral. Already, this last week, I've been far more tempted to diddle around with Angry Birds, Infinity Blade, Paper Toss, Cut the Rope, and Fruit Ninja than I had the week before when it wasn't possible. Of course, I might have been distracted by other things, and as with many new games, the fascination will pass. But a line has been crossed, and I am not likely to be the same as I was before. Believe me, I'm no luddite--I've been a computer and computer game enthusiast since we got our first Commodore 64 in about 1985. But I want to be able--as much as possible to pick and choose where and how technology pushes and prods me.
I'm fighting a losing battle, I know. I had some serious problems getting picked up at the airport in San Antonio because I didn't have a working cellphone (my cheapo only works in Canada, and I probably would have had to pony up at least $20 to get it to work so I could make one simple call), and there aren't any pay phones left--because nobody uses them any more! People in the States that I meet at conferences find it totally bizarre that I wouldn't have a cell phone, and it won't be much longer before it gets that way here too. I know that at some point in the next decade or so, I'll end up with a real smartphone and an everywhere-always-on data plan. But I'm in no rush. For now, I like the little bit of enforced escape that I have.