You Should Be Afraid

The Internet got really mad at an article the NYT’s Nick Bilton wrote about the potential risk of cell phone use and wearables. I linked to it in Wednesday’s NextDraft, and I almost immediately got a litany of angry feedback in volumes usually reserved for subjects such as the Middle East, domestic politics, or Apple’s decision to remove ports from its laptop line. Topics, in other words, too heated and untouchable for even the most experienced Starbucks Barista.

On one level, the complaining makes sense. Bilton’s examples of the risk of radiation or other harmful cell phone side effects didn’t offer much in the way of quality science, and he seemed to give more weight to the quacks than he should have. Or as Russell Brandon wrote in The Verge: “The New York Times’s smartwatch cancer article is bad and they should feel bad.”

So yes, let’s cede the fact that the science in Bilton’s piece is bad (even the NYT has done that now, see the footer of the article). And that the reactions are largely on the mark. I still think those reactions have been amplified dramatically because this is about a broader issue.

We are deeply concerned about the fact that we don’t know what this technology is doing to us. And our feverish mass adoption of the era’s tech advances is moving too quickly for us to have the time (in the moment, or in terms of historical data) to answer our very legitimate questions.

The other day I was grabbing a burrito near South Park. When I looked around the restaurant, everyone from lunching hipsters to coding nerds to luddite-looking bookworms to a woman taking a break behind the burrito counter was looking down at a phone. Everyone. The place was silent. Of course, exactly nothing in that scene surprises you. That’s life as we know it. But pause for a second and consider how quickly mobile technology has swept across every cohort in our society. It went from nowhere to everywhere in what seems like less time than it takes to miss a Meerkat video.

On some level, that worries us. And, don’t kid yourself. The people it worries the most are the early-adopting addicts that work in the Internet industry. We use and think about this stuff more than anyone. And we also worry about its potentially negative impacts more than anyone. Most Internet professionals spend their careers and public lives touting the positives of technology (both because there are positives and because it’s the goose that lays golden eggs with no revenue and $17 billion valuations). But privately, I don’t know a single person in our industry who doesn’t worry about being too distracted around their kids, or about spending too much time staring at a screen.

Think about it. We had to make laws telling people not to text while they are driving. And everyone I see on the road is still texting.

We know that we’re both early adopters and over-adopters. And we wonder if all this is going too far too fast. Do cell phones cause cancer? I don’t know. I’m a humanities major. I don’t know how a toaster works. But I do know that I’m sitting on my couch with an iPhone in my pocket and a Macbook on my lap. Both utilize technologies I don’t fully understand. Both are warm. Both are receiving and sending data over wireless connections. And both are within a couple inches of my selfie stick.

Should I be at least a little concerned? I would think so. But I’m even more concerned by the fact that I probably wouldn’t move either device out of reach even if science confirms my darkest dystopian paranoia. And even if our physical health is in no danger, there is absolutely no doubt that our psychological and social worlds are in a state of chaos that is of our doing, but not fully in our control.

And that scares us.

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