Where’s the “Off Switch” on This Thing?

Where’s the “Off Switch” on This Thing?

It’s “spring speaking season” once again. That wonderful time of year when the crocuses are blooming, the snow is melting (except of course in New England), the birds are migrating, and I’m racking up frequent flier miles on really cheap airlines traveling around the country speaking to trade associations, professional organizations and other business groups on topics such as Internet sales taxes, social media legal issues, “crowdfunding” and the finer points of information technology consulting contracts (hey, it pays the bills).

Whenever I’m speaking somewhere, I always check out the other speakers to learn the latest trends. By far, the hottest topic for professional speakers right now is “how to use social media to grow your business.”

At every conference there is always at least one speaker (sometimes more) singing the praises of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. These speakers are invariably young (well, younger than me), speak incredibly fast, jump around the stage like cheerleaders (or teenagers on Red Bull) and scream at the top of their lungs. Their mantra is always the same: “Social media is here, social media is the future, social media is gooooood, you better get on board with social media or your business will go bankrupt.” It used to be that only religious fanatics ordered you to “convert or die”. Now it’s technology gurus.

Generally, I agree with these speakers. But before we wildly embrace a social universe in which everyone is connected to everyone all the time, and anyone in the universe can grab me by the tookus 24/7 and force me to pay attention to them against my will, we should consider one major issue:

Whether or not technology should come with an “off switch.”

During one recent presentation, the speaker showed a video of a 19-month-old girl who had figured out how to use her father’s tablet computer and download apps. After demonstrating his daughter’s technological prowess, her father then took away the tablet and gave her a magazine. The daughter repeatedly stabbed her finger at the magazine, trying to make it interact with her. When it didn’t she threw it away in frustration. She then looked curiously at her finger and started jabbing herself in the leg … to make sure her finger wasn’t the problem!

Of course, everyone in the audience said it was the cutest thing they had ever seen. But I hope I wasn’t the only person watching this video who wasn’t totally horrified by the fact that that little girl — at 19 months! — was already a slave to technology.

We are becoming increasingly engulfed and surrounded by media. Go to your local coffee shop and there’s a wide-screen television blasting at you, with another one by the cash register scrolling ads and coupons in your face. We have televisions in our cars and text while we’re driving. We will soon have automobile windshields that can access the Internet and toilets that can diagnose bowel problems and report them to your doctor online (don’t laugh — the patents are pending).

Which is fine, as long as you have the power to choose when to be connected. The minute you lose that freedom, and surrender your privacy to the point that you are publicly available 24/7/365, you also begin to lose control over your life.

When you are using your technology, it is increasingly able to use you. Like Santa Claus, it “knows when you are sleeping, it knows when you’re awake” (and sometimes also when you’re bad or good), it knows what you are doing and where you are at all times, and it penalizes you when you don’t play by its rules.

A friend told me a story about his teenage daughter. It seemed that he and his wife were finding empty plastic bags in their bathroom wastebasket every time the daughter used the shower. At first, they feared drug abuse. But when they confronted their daughter, the story turned out to be quite different.

It seemed that a week before one of the daughter’s friends had texted her about a party at someone’s house. When the daughter didn’t respond within five minutes, the friend assumed the daughter had other plans and didn’t include her in follow-up texts. The party went on without her, and her friends teased her for weeks about her absence.

The daughter started bringing her smartphone with her INTO THE SHOWER to make sure that didn’t happen again. Hence the plastic bags.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited about the brave new world we will have when all the world’s information is at our fingertips, instantaneously accessible. But we will need some commonsense rules to ensure it is used intelligently and responsibly, and some “off switches” toensure the world can’t grab us when we don’t want to be grabbed. Without those, there’s a real danger we will become slaves to a master that is blind, deaf and dumb, without a heart and without a soul.

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our Web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2013 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO.
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