When it comes to personal technology, I’m a late and grudging adopter who gives in to progress only when backed into a corner. I finally got around to owning a cell phone, for instance, when the assumption became widespread that people no longer had to make definite advance plans to meet and could just arrange something on the fly. Suddenly a reporter had to have a cell phone, so I got one, although I have continued to dig in my heels by sticking to a chunky antique that doesn’t do anything except function as a phone and clock.
But in recent years that stubbornness has obliged me to add another gadget, a tablet, because now people expect me to be able to read their last-second e-mail changing the time and place of an interview, and as long as I was getting a device to deal with that problem I might as well have one on which I could write an article or read a manuscript while I was on the road . . . And so it goes. The machines push on in their conquering march, and I give ground when they force me to.
But when it comes to the response of the English language to all this gadgetry, I’m eagerly in favor of innovation, invention, and novelty. The ways in which people interact with their devices open up all sorts of opportunities for fresh uses of language to capture the effect on their experiences and inner lives. “Screen zombie,” describing the state of mesmerized disregard for others’ humanity brought on by staring at the eternal flow of pixels, strikes me as a keeper, but we have more work to do.
For instance, we need a concise term for the momentary confusion of scale caused by a vibrating cell phone. That buzzing sound in the middle distance, is it my phone announcing a vitally important call by shimmying across the top of the bureau in the next room, or is it a power tool operated by somebody down the block? That rippling sensation in the area of my heart as I walk down a busy sidewalk, is it a spam text message arriving on the phone in the breast pocket of my jacket, or is it an incipient coronary? We need a name for the faint, fleeting panic such confusion brings on, an alarm that dissipates rapidly as you realize that it’s just the phone again.
How about when you come around a corner in a gym locker room and catch a guy holding his phone at arm’s length in order to take a picture of his near-naked body in the brief post-workout state of maximum muscular engorgement? If you catch the same guy flexing heroically in the mirror, he’ll probably have the decency to be embarrassed by his own self-regard. But when you catch him taking a locker-room phone selfie he’s likely to just keep right on with it and not even bother to try to hide what he’s doing. There should be a generic term for such encounters, one that captures how deep engagement with a gadget short-circuits shame by making it OK to ignore actual people.
And we need a pithy term for the mutually reinforcing relationship between the harmfulness of the principle taught by a tech ad and the sophistication of the technology being advertised. The more up-to-date the equipment in the ad, the more useless and misguided the philosophical equipment for living offered by the ad. Recent examples I’ve seen include: doing two things at once is better than doing one, bigger is better, taking the day off work to watch TV will make you happy, paying for unlimited access to data turns soul-crushing tech-assisted isolation into quiet joy, and it’s important to be able to watch sports or movies on a portable device while going from room to room in your home, moving through a city, or taking your kids camping.
It can all seem pretty depressing to contemplate, but not when I think of it as a challenge to phrase-coiners. To paraphrase Joe Hill: Don’t mourn — neologize.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’