By Dr Alun Epps
There is no need to even slightly paraphrase the prophetic line from the Eagles staple that has become the author’s go-to phrase to describe the “black mirror” world that we have allowed ourselves to check out of any time we like (but never leave). To loosely quote Thomas Browne (1643) from his magnum opus Religio Medici (the religion of a doctor) “Midway life’s journey, I find myself standing in a dark wood and the more I learn, the more I discover how little I actually know.” Such is the feeling experienced by the author, another altogether different type of doctor, some centuries later, up-skilling in the nascent arts of the digital world.
It is hard to pinpoint how, when and why it has happened but humanity has become addicted to the function, form and facility of the hand-held window into an alternative, artificial or augmented reality. The author; as guilty as the next prisoner; is triple screening as he writes; supposedly watching a movie on a flat-screen, writing on a laptop and checking a smart phone for views and likes every few minutes. To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys (1987) “What have we done to deserve this?” Any contemporary or adult, will remember parental warnings of the dangers of the “goggle-box” (television), causing square eyes or inducing premature blindness. An extra “o” and one less “g” in the nick-name for John Logie Baird’s contribution to mass communication yield’s an interesting brand-name and more recently verb, that shall be known in this work as “uncle.”
Uncle, apparently sees, hears, reads, thinks; and as the author and two colleagues speculated in 2008; “feels;” what we do or will do every second of the day. Mobile devices, even in sleep mode, can allegedly pick up sound and images and we are observed George Orwell-style in real time so that our moods, thoughts and actions are monitored, predicted and instantly reacted to. The author cynically dismissed such a notion as paranoid conjecture, but three uncle-moments (UMs) led to a reconsideration.
UM1 happened when casually recalling with a colleague, a memorable guest speaker at a research seminar some three years previously who gave both author and colleague a traditional hat from the guest’s country. Both parties, out of politeness posed wearing the hats and thought nothing of it since. Later on in the same day that the hat-posing was recalled, the author opened his social network account and was immediately shown (presumably by uncle) an image of the author and the colleague (both wearing those hats) with the guest speaker. This was either amusing or very disturbing.
UM2 caught the author out after driving home with the family; and being a pleasant afternoon, the notion of a barbeque or cook-out seemed opportune. A stop at the store was made and with the use of cashless payment, meat, bread, salad, beverages etc. were purchased. A traditional non-gas set-up was arranged and to accompany the fanning of the flames whilst squinting through the solid fuel and charcoal induced haze, a “random” on-line jazz selection was requested. The Miles Davies version of “Smoke gets in your eyes” immediately came up. Is this purely coincidental? – the author thinks not.
UM3 happened a month later when the author noted that their child had the word “parallelogram” to learn for an upcoming spelling test. Not unusual on its own of course, but it is very unusually a word that appears an esoteric rock song. Search online or “uncle” the phrase “we’re moving like a parallelogram” and the reader will understand. Knowing that the author’s best friend would immediately see the point, the story was relayed by a messenger app across continents and time zones. The receiver did get the inference but was somewhat alarmed when the next song on his random shuffle on-line play-list was the most famous song (concerning the best card in the deck) by the same artist. As the Smiths in 1985 might have stated, “That joke isn’t funny anymore.”
Whilst this could be dismissed as an anecdotal tip of the iceberg; and all readers will have their personal “uncle moments;” what is most alarming is how this seeing, listening entity, if it does indeed have the apparent speed, depth and breadth of knowledge to perform these mere party tricks; then to what extent does it currently and how will it in the future yield its power to influence not just “us” but our most vulnerable and naïve. From the author’s experience, there is nothing more addictive to a child as a certain uncle-owned video sharing service. Once a child has access to this, nothing and that includes; books, television, human interaction, exercise, a pet cat or dog, a new bike, quad-bike, gaming console, skiing holiday, or even a made to measure swimming pool (the list is endless); can take the place of a tablet and “that” service. From an adult’s eye perspective, much of the content viewed on the service is user-generated and some of the most popular videos feature an influencer playing a MMORPG or similar; and commenting on their every move and thought whilst the hapless viewer sits transfixed, literally unaware of anything outside of the screen.
The double-edged sword of the digital world has convinced us as consumers, to surrender our most personal; details, images, memories, searches, thoughts and to an extent our lives and souls completely unconditionally to the life-less and soul-less “friend at our fingertips.” The central argument for the discussion is then is are we in a better place with the vast recall and reach of the “always on” digital media that allows us to order entertainment, transport and meals with the use of one thumb, or are we are, as Henley and Frey (1976) stated “all just prisoners here, of our own device?”
Dr Alun Epps is Associate Professor in Marketing at Middlesex University in Dubai. Opinion expressed in this article belongs to the author.
This piece has been published in June print edition of Communicate.