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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 16, 2014 at 8:00 PM

You are a machine, and other lies your smartphone tells you

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(Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

I was reading a book last week when I came to an obvious conclusion that changed everything.

I am not a machine.

So why am I trying to work like one?

A paperback copy of “Technopoly” by late critic Neil Postman was in my hand, and my smartphone — screen blank and ready — was on my table.

Things that seemed natural felt suddenly bizarre. Apps and likes and my lust for productivity. Notifications and data and the enemy I’ve made of time. The endless information I expect to manage and the umpteen natural limits I see as bugs to fix.

I looked at my smartphone, my closest companion, and heard the principle it seemed to have whispered to me so confidently for so long. It never sounded absurd until just this moment:

I live to do more, better, faster, Mónica. And so, of course, do you.

Oh, do I?

Well, what if I want to be more than just efficient and productive? What if my smartphone — or my laptop or tablet, for that matter — doesn’t get to be my role model without my consent? What if, for all my most-personalized machine seems to know about me, it doesn’t know me — the unquantifiable human creature — at all?

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Yes, my smartphone may be just a pile of hardware and software, but don’t let that fool you. Everything about it insists I am a machine, and everything about how we all use them insists I should hate to prove it wrong.

So I am always on. I am always accessible. I can process a limitless amount of information and can be interrupted with new information at any time. I can run a huge number of apps to improve my performance in everything, and the more good apps I download, the better my performance can be.

At least, that’s the expectation.

When mistakes are made — missed appointments, botched tasks, wrong turns — it’s clear where the fault lies. Not with my perfect machine, my “smart” phone. But with the flawed, dumb one. Me.

My smartphone is the coach who never gives up. I could be so much more powerful, it tells me, if I take one more step toward its level of beautiful, technical precision. One more account. One more number. One more device.

Friends back this up. You want to be better at this or that? I use this app. Have you tried that one? How about this one? Or this? Or this?

I think with shame then of all the task-management apps I’ve downloaded and never used, because what are machines without organized processes? And the Nike FuelBand I haven’t worn in ages, because what are machines without quantifiable metrics of performance?

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Or I think with pride about Waze, the real-time traffic and directions app I use on familiar routes constantly, because what machine would take anything other than the fastest possible path through any circuit?

“The computer redefines humans as ‘information processors’ and nature itself as information to be processed,” Postman wrote in “Technopoly” way back in 1992.

“The fundamental metaphorical message of the computer, in short, is that we are machines — thinking machines, to be sure, but machines nonetheless,” he wrote.

Postman didn’t live in the smartphone world. He died in 2003, before that frontier had exploded. But his critique still holds because the smartphone is the latest in a long, long line of technologies — the clock, the printing press, the television — that can transform us not just with their utility, but with their values.
Whether we notice how or not.

There are other things our smartphones make us. Empowered. Creative. Connected. Never far from an answer. Never, truly, alone.

And it’s not all bad, this pursuit of efficiency. It’s exhausting, and we’re way too inconsistent to keep it up, but look at all that we can do.

Assuming we leave enough room in our busy biological brains to ponder — not calculate — precisely what that ought to be.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Books, Column, Habits, Identity, Mobile, Tech Devotion

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