Sept. 29 2015 02:58 PM

The pros and cons of a tsunami warning on your phone

Google knows where you are cares about your safety.
These are tough times for the tech columnist when he's holed up in Hawaii and trying to do the exact opposite: detach from Matrix, go a bit native, slow down, let go of the wire and wireless to embrace a slower pace, a simpler and easier lifestyle, absent the hustle and bustle and tweets and IMs and DMs and snaps and chats and all the things that gradually, then suddenly, took over our lives.

I spent September half-off-the-grid on the Big Island of Hawaii, wanting very much to get away from an increasingly oppressive sense of not only having to be always on, but also not knowing how many entities are always on me. Both Google and my Android device track everywhere I go, as well as a couple of downloaded apps. I am a target. I don't like it.

Of course, the only time I'm actually off the grid is three miles deep in the rainforest at the place I'm housesitting. One mile from there—zing!—Facebook at the fingertips, as well as the dual-edged sword of not-secret-at-all surveillance.

This weird “thanks-yet-you're-creeping-me-out” dichotomy struck like a rogue wave on Sept. 16 when I was working at the Hilo library—best free wireless around—and my phone started blinking a white dot in the screen's center with a series of rippling concentric circles expanding outward.

What the hell was this? Trusty constant companion Google was sending me a “Tsunami warning!” following the magnitude-8.2 earthquake in Chile. It would hit Hawaii in roughly 12 hours, and of course Google (and many of its friends and competitors) knows exactly where I am at all times.

So…thanks? I'm glad there's some benevolent corporate entity always peering over my shoulder and looking out for my continuing existence so I remain an alive and functioning consumer fodder unit in our current technology-centric cultural paradigm?

I guess so. Because my initial reaction, even before “uh-oh, tsunami,” or “I don't like being spied on,” was “Cool!” I experienced something I could have seen in a sci-fi TV show when I was a kid: Hero gets distress alert via advanced communication technology—there's been an earthquake off the coast of South America and a tidal wave is surging toward home!

There's the sense we're all living in our own science-fiction-becomes-fact adventure story that's inextricably intertwined with the always-on culture, for better and worse, even as we increasingly take all of it for granted.

As much as I wanted to get away, once confronted by the reality of technological withdrawal, it immediately reboots any over-idealized luddite perspective, demanding to at least make some kind of compromise on your own terms: You could use folded paper maps to find your way around the island's back roads, but why would you when there is Google Maps?

Thus it's that patient, inextricably logical pull of technological advancement, of course, that makes the paper maps grow dust and mold in the car trunk until you reach any part of the world where the cell towers' reach run out.

There's also the forgotten (or perhaps ignored) truth that these devices upset the natural rhythm of life through constant interruption. When I'm in San Diego, the first thing I habitually do when I wake up is check my phone—what are the baseball scores? What's the latest in social media? Did anybody call/text/IM?

It's this state of constant distraction—the always-on mentality, rarely a chance to slow down, focus and think—that troubles me. I never believed anything like the dystopian future presented in Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, where people are kept distracted by loud noises and other interruptions that are wirelessly transmitted to their brain every 30 seconds or so to keep them constantly off-balance and unable to concentrate.

But once you filter it through the far more prescient prism of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where people choose to be drugged, distracted and otherwise luxuriously entertained by the latest technological toys, while a closely intertwined leadership of corporate and government interests does whatever it wants, strikes far closer to home.

Because this has always been the definition of the best kind of servant, the best kind of slave: One who doesn't know s/he's a slave, one who welcomes oppression, sees it in fact as a kind of salvation, a protection, a buffer against the fears of the unknown world.

Then again, who doesn't like being saved from a tsunami by their heroic piece of technology?


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