The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek
Eleven years ago, Apple Inc. began using the phrase "Think different" in its advertising campaign, and the phrase quickly became as iconic as "Where’s the beef?," "Got milk?," and other catchy slogans.
On June 9, the company will unveil iPhone 2.0, and everyone who hopes to be cool will want one. What could be wrong with that?
A lot, as it turns out.
Our society has devolved into a mass of turned-on, tuned-out, and plugged-in technophiles. Whatever distinction used to exist between public and private life is all but gone. Waiting on line at the grocery store or post office used to mean striking up a conversation with the person in front of you; it now involves blurting the intimate details of one’s love life into a cell phone for all to hear, or scrolling through a playlist for just the right song, or checking our e-mail.
There are three costs associated with this self-absorbed behavior...
The first is an opportunity cost. Our social fabric is in danger of being ripped to shreds as we swap electronic connection for personal relationships. The very nature of community depends upon us being connected to one another. Being civil means, or at least used to mean, valuing the relationships beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. If upon leaving home we immerse ourselves in idle chatter on the phone, listen to music nonstop at volume levels that preclude hearing the world around us, or read every piece of e-mail sent since the last time we checked, we miss the chance to make new friendships, renew old ones, or simply say hello to a stranger.
The second cost is to our psychological health. I don’t know about you, but my best ideas come when I’m brushing my teeth, putting on my shoes, or simply daydreaming. That’s right, daydreaming. A waste of time, you say? Not at all. To be creative is to have the freedom to dream, to let thoughts appear and evaporate, and to play. "But I’m too busy to play," you reply. Nonsense. Some of the time spent fidgeting with a cell phone or MP3 player is time we could put to better use, such as doing nothing at all. When our brains are constantly stimulated by electronic data, they are, of necessity, precluded from taking anything else in, such as the random thoughts that can be the genesis of great ideas. The nonstop avalanche of images and sounds from electronic media (among other distractions) is a barrier, not a portal, to creativity.
The third cost of our absorption in technology is the most serious of all: the possibility of an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that drivers who use a cell phone are four times more likely to be involved in an accident. The American Automobile Association has challenged that study, but it doesn’t really matter who is right. Imagine that your son or daughter has just gotten a driver’s license and is taking your car out for a spin. Would it matter to you if other drivers are yakking away on a cell phone while cruising next to, or heading toward, your child? Of course it would…and it should. Driving is challenging enough without having to worry about people around you being literally driven to distraction. We are, to borrow a phrase from the late author Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death.
Last year, New York State Senator Carl Kruger proposed a bill that would ban people from using cell phones, "personal data assistants," and other electronic devices while crossing the street in New York City and Buffalo. Many were outraged by the proposal, but it makes a lot of sense. When you’re arguing with your colleague or spouse on the phone, or reading the latest memo from the boss, you simply cannot be on guard against traffic. There is a limit to how much even the most skilled multitasker can accomplish.
None of what I am saying is a call to return to the days when people got their entertainment by huddling together in front of a radio (though that sounds pretty good, if you ask me). Nor is it an indictment of the telecommunications industry. After all, technology is morally neutral. It can be put to useful or harmful purposes.
My argument isn’t even with Apple itself. In fact, in my experience, Apple provides some of the best customer service around, and the technical support I received after switching to the Mac earlier this year was the friendliest and most helpful I’ve gotten in a long time.
If the introduction into our culture of several million more iPhones, along with the other devices on the market, results in even more self-absorption, less time to daydream, and more pedestrian and driver accidents, it won’t be the fault of Apple, or anyone else we care to blame.
It will be our own fault.
But it’s not too late to think different.
Editor's Note: This article is slightly modified from a version that appeared originally on BusinessWeek.com. For more from Bruce Weinstein, see: www.TheEthicsGuy.com.
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