Thursday, August 27, 2015

Smart Phone Smart, Users Not So Smart

First we had cordless phones, then we had mobile phones, then we had cell phones, and now we have smart phones. They are triumphs of technical genius. It seems like almost everyone past age ten has one. I am many decades past ten and I do not have one, nor do I want one. I have a pay as you go cell phone which works fine for me. After all, all I want it to do is ring and find someone on the other end saying “hello”. The key word here is “phone.” In fact, I get mad when my cell phone rings.

Perhaps the biggest understatement in recent times is that smart phones are intrusive. They have taken over our lives. We no longer drive them and their technology. They drive us. We can be accessed anytime, anywhere, 24-7. They are vacuums, sucking every thought out of us and getting it out there on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other social media sites. But I beg to differ. I believe these are ANTI-social sites.

Smart phone users have now become voyeuristic. That is, they write in annoying texting shorthand and then wait like a player at a Vegas slot machine hoping for three cherries, glued to their phones waiting for some texted reply to pop up on their screens. You look at their eyes and these folks have a combination of the 1,000 yard stare mixed with a look of vapid emptiness as they await the next gem or contemplate their own next gem to be sent out, oblivious to anything else going on around them in real life and time.

You’ve probably all seen YouTube videos of people walking into fountains or even falling onto subway tracks because they were so engrossed in what was on their tiny screens that they lost complete touch with their environment. Not funny. Just plain scary.

It is now a common site to see a young couple dining in a restaurant, each with their phones on the table, not speaking to each other, but rather staring at their smart phones or texting someone else. They can text others but have no time to speak with each other. And if they do talk to each other it is of short duration, kind of like oral Twitter—143 characters and they’re done.

The other day I saw a family of five sitting in a restaurant and each one had a smart phone on the tabletop and all of them were busy flipping screens or texting. My wife and I watched them all through our meal. They rarely spoke to each other. And when they did it was never for long. These oral Tweets were short and never seemed to involve everyone else at the table, as would regular conversation. When their meal was over, they all got up, faces still buried in their phones and left. They could have been five strangers. Most likely, they were.

When you look around at the world, there is so much violence and so much disconnect between people. As a retired teacher, my teacher friends and I agree that it is harder and harder to engage these children. Kids today are not used to communicating face to face, with their peers, their parents, or others beyond their circle of friends for extended periods of time. One of my friends just retired from teaching. He was an English teacher. Wow, what a Sisyphus job that had to be—push the boulder laboriously up the hill and when you almost reach the top, it tumbles and rolls back. So you start over again, doomed to repeat the cycle forever. He said he knew it was time to hang up his red pencil when he started receiving research papers filled with texting shorthand. These kids actually thought that this was acceptable in a thoughtful research paper or composition? 

Is it no wonder that kids today have a lot of difficulty solving word problems? Is it not surprising that people today also have huge difficulties with conflict resolution? Is it not surprising that people today have difficulty with understanding complex topics that can’t be reduced to either a text on a smart phone or reduced to 143 characters in a Tweet? No wonder tempers are so quickly flared and all to often violence erupts where once two people would and could talk it out.

Recently I watched a news piece on TV dealing with texting. In the course of the piece, a boy of about ten was asked why he preferred texting instead of talking. His response was quite insightful. He said, “I’d rather text because it’s short and it’s not like real time where you have to talk to someone right then and your can’t control the conversation.” To him it is like DVR’ring a conversation to be played back at one’s convenience.

A few years ago I was at a large family gathering. We were playing a game like Pictionary, and two of the teenagers were sitting side by side yet texting each other. It left me speechless. Don’t get me wrong. I am no curmudgeon. I like technology as well as the next person. And I fully realize that today’s smart phone users have a wealth of information available at their fingertips. But that is not really accurate. There is more data available, not information. You see, data can be defined as unorganized information, but information should be defined as organized data. That is, data, which has been transformed into useful information through synthesis, context, content, and purpose—the exact skills that have withered with the reliance on texting and Tweeting
Colleges and some high schools have run experiments in which the subjects pledged to give up their cell phones—and thus texting, Facebooking, and Tweeting—for a week. Most failed. Even those tasked with giving it up for a mere 24 hours quit the experiment over 70 percent of the time. They said it was just too stressful. I guess stress is in the head of the beholder.

Yes, they call them smart phones. But I suspect the real smart ones are the ones who sell them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What Has “The Donald” Done?

         Perhaps the fastest growing question that has arisen since Donald Trump entered the presidential race is, “What has “The Donald” Done? There is no simple answer to this seemingly simple question.
         Trump has arrived like a hurricane in the Gulf—full of confidence, power, fury,  the ability to do serious damage to anyone or anything in its path, and the total refusal to apologize. Donald has also done something totally refreshing for a candidate.  When asked a question, he answers it, Political Correctness be damned.
For better or for worse, no one knows what kind of potential president he will be. But one thing is certain—he brings leadership to politics and Washington politics especially. Trump is a businessman and he views politics as a business where many of the same rules apply as they do in the private business sector. He is results-oriented and he brings the aura of the warrior to his campaign. He believes that the art of the deal—getting things done—is accomplished through tough bargaining and once that has been accomplished, then there are no excuses for failure.
Cable news doesn’t know what to do with him. Even the folks at Fox are scrambling to sty ahead of him. But when the Foxies interview the man on the street, the responses are almost always the same. Trump does not hide behind the iron facade of Political Correctness. He tells it as he sees it. It seems to come from a deep inner belief, not a political position, or what the polsters have told him to say. And this seems to be resonating with people.
Trump is the antithesis of Obama. Where Obama acts like a haughty dictator while doubling as a college professor who is always lecturing us, Trump says, “…here is a problem and I will get it solved.” He seems to believe that political issues, like business deals are always solvable. It is matter of who has the strongest will. And in that department, I would not vote against Trump.
It is extremely possible that Donald Trump may not become president, or even win his party’s nomination. But no matter what, he has done something that is long overdue. He has said, “Political Correctness be damned.” It is time to return to the old adage that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then damn it, call it what it is—a duck.
For far too long, the country has weakened itself by embracing the concept of Political Correctness. This is a democracy killer. It has been said many times that the cure for free speech is more free speech.  One has the right to say dumb things, sometimes say insensitive things, to be downright ignorant. But that is the power of free speech in a democracy. If you think it but no one knows what you are thinking, how is change affected. But if you say it, then your ideas can be clarified, or dissected, accepted, or disproven by people with different views and life experiences. That is how we grow stronger as a country.
It comes as no surprise that many comedians—whose job is to live in the land of the politically incorrect-- no longer perform on college campuses. Too many folks seem to be offended by some of their jokes. It’s a good example of people who love to laugh at others but when the joke is on them it is suddenly not funny anymore. When’s the last time you heard a Polish joke or an Italian joke. Even the “dumb blonds” are upset. We have become a nation of thin-skinned people, easily offended, and always ready to call someone out.
Trump seems to instinctively know this. It also doesn’t hurt that as a billionaire, he has been saying what’s on his mind for decades. He is direct and forthright. And this makes a lot of people, and all of the networks uncomfortable. Is he perfect?  Heck no? Does he make one cringe at times? Heck yes. But is he catching people’s attention and making them think? Heck yes. And that is a very good thing. It almost feels like the shroud of Political Correctness is finally being lifted.
Why did so many people watch the first debate? Why did over 30,000 people go to a stadium is southern Alabama to hear his speak? Was it his message? Was it to see what outrageous thing might come from his lips next? Was it the drama? Was it the spectacle of it all? Say what you will but the man knows how to capture an audience.

Whatever it is, it has rocked the political establishment back on its heels. How can this not be a good thing.