The coming age of mind control and smartphones
As we furiously rush into the future, mobile gadgets will change the way we see ourselves and others. They will have a mind of their own and even help us become bigger influencers.
I began this column by asking myself why I was throwing my family's anonymity into the vast digital unknown. I realised there's no escape when one takes a view from a smartphone that is gathering all the Artificial Intelligence it can in its processor while making me think less like a human.
It began when my son expressed his desire for a pet. I thought he meant a gadget to keep our family safe. The missus explained that he meant a 'pet', a watchdog. We politely reasoned with the boy that owning an animal is a full-time responsibility but he was smug in his loveable innocence that shines through when he is on the horns of a dilemma.
One doesn't bring a pet into an apartment, was my refrain. And why a puppy that would grow into a dog? My mind was made up as I thought about the mess a canine would make in our house: the sniping at the heels, the scratching; the training can be exhausting. Not happening. This is not the country and animals have a right to roam free. I had long held the opinion and I wasn't going to change my stubborn Taurean mind now.
But I chose my words carefully with my kid, making sure I didn't offend him in any way (children can be touchy these days, sensitive to a fault). It happens when young boys are on the cusp of adulthood. They want to be taken seriously and seen as responsible but are chary to make a commitment.
"Pets are living, breathing creatures," I told him in all seriousness in my best dad-friendly, but firm tone.
I wasn't done, yet. "Who will take care of a dog when we have to travel or take a vacation? Besides, they leave a stench around the house? Would he clean up after the pet does his business?" He hadn't considered that possibility and sulked as he went to his room.
"Forget the pet, how about a gadget, like a smarter smartphone?" I said behind him. Something he could carry around with him. The device would help him stay in touch with the world (and for us to track his activities on our phones). Building family connections via surveillance. The idea was sown in my head. By then, I had lost him.
My response was triggered by a clipping sent to me by some friends who are news hounds and geeks. They know a thing or two about mobile technology and how it is shaping the world. The clipping was from a US paper called The Tacoma News Tribune; edition date, April 11, 1953.
I checked online and was glad to know that publication still exists as The News Tribune. The report was headlined: 'There'll be no escape in future from telephones'. In the single column report that followed, Mark R. Sullivan of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, is quoted thus: "In the final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. It probably will require no dial or equivalent, and I think the users will be able to see each other if they want, as they talk."
"Who knows, it may actually translate from one language to another."
Sullivan could not have been more prescient back in the fifties. He saw the phone turning personal, almost an extension of ourselves. It is now smarter, lighter, and intuitive to the touch.
Indeed, one can experience the vicissitudes of the virtual and real on the smartphone. It has become our pet gadget that we cannot leave behind lest we lose our way on this lonely planet. We are tied to our smarter gadget to make our payments and light our way out of the darkness into the light. I read out the report to a colleague who was amazed by Sullivan's vision. And it spooked me when she revealed that she uses her smartphone to monitor her home while she is away. I said she had allowed the gadget to invade her family's privacy. She countered that these devices keep her home safe as she tracks what's happening in her household. "It's safer than being sorry," she countered.
Another columnist wrote that her home is controlled by the likes of Alexa and Siri. They listen and are effective, she claimed, and I am inclined to believe her, even though it's a creepy feeling being watched on the mobile device. She mentioned privacy issues but I wasn't sure she meant it. The modern phone has become a tool of intimate and personal surveillance. We trick and track our loved ones unbeknownst to them. We protest when Big Tech watches us but silently accept the blatant invasion of privacy when it comes to home and family. The telecom executive Sullivan didn't see that one coming back in 1953.
The next generation of smartphones could read our faces better and will be easier on the eye. They will last longer after a charge and could change colours. Who knows, smartphones as we know them could even go extinct. New devices and contraptions are in various stages of R&D - objects of mind-control - to shop, pay, play, read, maybe love.
So I asked a colleague to imagine and write on the future of the phone. "It's unimaginable....the potential," was his staccato-like response. Smartphones already read our minds; next-gen devices will help us to get into others' heads.
Perhaps I should wait for the thinking gadget that controls minds. My powers of persuasion will improve manifold. I won't even have to talk to my son. I'll simply gift him a device that I will use to rewire his brain and help him rid those thoughts about a pet. Indeed, there will be no escape from phones.
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