How else could he have predicted with such eerie precision, in his 2001 Newsweek column Time To Do Everything But Think, how our devices would direct our minds?
Somewhere up in the canopy of society, way above where normal folks live, there will soon be people who live in a state of perfect wirelessness. They’ll have mobile phones that download the Internet, check scores and trade stocks. They’ll have Palm handhelds that play music, transfer photos and get Global Positioning System readouts. They’ll have laptops on which they watch movies, listen to baseball games and check inventory back at the plant. In other words, every gadget they own will perform all the functions of all the other gadgets they own, and they will be able to do it all anywhere, any time.
Keep in mind: Brooks, who has spent a decade writing columns for The New York Times, wrote this piece three years before Facebook, six years before the iPhone and two years after the introduction of a simple email pager known as the BlackBerry.
Further down in the essay, Brooks continues:
Never being out of touch means never being able to get away. But Wireless Man’s problem will be worse than that. His brain will have adapted to the tempo of wireless life. Every 15 seconds there is some new thing to respond to. Soon he has this little rhythm machine in his brain. He does everything fast. He answers e-mails fast and sloppily. He’s bought the fastest machines, and now the idea of waiting for something to download is a personal insult. His brain is operating at peak RPMs.
He sits amid nature’s grandeur and says, “It’s beautiful. But it’s not moving. I wonder if I got any new voice mails.” He’s addicted to the perpetual flux of the information networks. He craves his next data fix. He’s a speed freak, an info junkie. He wants to slow down, but can’t.
Big thanks to reader Mark Fussell, a technology writer who attached the essay in an email response to my recent column about digital disconnection. “I find it more than prescient,” Fussell said about the piece. “He underestimated the impact of technology.”
Brooks’ ending is kind of genius:
So here’s how I’m going to get rich. I’m going to design a placebo machine. It’ll be a little gadget with voice recognition and everything. Wireless People will be able to log on and it will tell them they have no messages. After a while, they’ll get used to having no messages. They’ll be able to experience life instead of in-formation. They’ll be able to reflect instead of react. My machine won’t even require batteries.