Augmenting Reality All the Way Down

I sometimes think that if you could personify the current state of American society, and “film” our economic situation, it might look kind of like a Baz Luhrmann picture, with throngs of cavorting people all dressed to the nines-to-the-ninth-power, but all rotting on the inside. A glittery, sparkling, hedonistic, gala ball at which everyone secretly had aggressive and incurable syphilis, but couldn’t admit it to anyone else.
Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read this piece by George Packer about the relentless march toward technological and economic perfection for the lucky few, the slow spiral down to existential despair for everyone else, and how so few actually notice it all going on. I hardly notice it! Why should I? I have an iPhone 5 and a tablet! I got 99 problems but a screen ain’t one.

What Packer is actually positing is that as things get worse for the vast majority, we all tend to fix our gaze on the things that are still going gangbusters: super-gizmos and the stock market and whatnot. As the syphilis worsens,  we need more flashes of light from the mirror ball.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea that the beleaguered underemployed man in his article can barely afford life’s necessities, and yet still owns a smartphone. Why shouldn’t he? Even on the crummiest, cheapest device, a person has access to a wealth of knowledge and entertainment that previous generations could not have dreamed of. With things being the way they are, that’s the least a good, hardworking person deserves, considering what’s available. The gadgets aren’t the problem (and I don’t think Packer thinks so either), it’s the circumstances that make those gadgets our only escape, our only hope.

So keep perfecting those devices, Silicon Valley. We’re gonna need ’em.

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5 thoughts on “Augmenting Reality All the Way Down

  1. Actually, an important point of the devices is that they have shifted from the world of “nice to have” to the world of necessity.
    At this point, the people that work for me simply need a smartphone. It is expected that we can get a hold of each other at a moment’s notice. This is done so I don’t have to hire 3 times as many people to cover the 24×7 operations that are required. I expect that not only can I call them (we do rotate the resources, so it isn’t every week of the year) at a moment’s notice, but that they can do some degree of work where they are, right now. If someone was to refuse to have a smartphone, they truly do run the strong risk of getting counseled out of the company (can’t fire them outright for not having a phone, but they are viewed as being irresponsible in the organization).
    And the tablets are big more and more as replacements to the PC. This is why Windows 8 is strongly pushing the metro interface. Not because anyone thinks it makes the least bit of sense on a laptop or PC, but because everyone in the industry that isn’t self-delusional understands that the PCs are becoming a niche market. Tablets will rule the market place for the next decade or so.
    It is for these reasons that I think it is disingenuous to put smartphones and tablets in the same general category as yachts and 2nd homes.

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  2. If someone was to refuse to have a smartphone, they truly do run the strong risk of getting counseled out of the company (can’t fire them outright for not having a phone, but they are viewed as being irresponsible in the organization)
    Of course the company could provide one, but why would they want to do that? I knew one fellow a decade ago who refused to give his cell number to his supervisor unless the company helped pay for minutes. He ultimately left, but the turnover at the company was so high that I never could tell if that was the reason.
    Also, there is something about technology that is similar to “bread and circuses” — at least the circus part.

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  3. @machintelligence – The company could indeed provide the cell phone. The company could actually fully fund your health benefits. The company could provide decent raises. And still be profitable at the same time.
    But, this would come at the cost of lowered C-level executive compensation and reduced stock prices (which is a big part of that C-level executive compensation). The C-level executives would still make a lot of money, but they would only be making a few hundred times the lowest paid workers in the company in lieu of the thousands (in some cases tens of thousands) of times what the lowest paid workers get.
    Therefore, it isn’t going to happen. At least not until unions learn how to gain influence again and reduce their internal corruption to something more reasonable…

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