The Digital Age has its new poster child.
On Wednesday, when most of us were learning firsthand about bomb cyclones, an Australian man got out of his car to find a visitor waiting outside his home – with a bow and arrow at the ready. So the man followed normal 21st century safety procedure.
Namely, he pulled out his phone and started taking pictures.
The archer fired. The arrow was on target. And according to Reuters, the homeowner walked away with barely a scratch. Why? Because the arrow hit and killed the phone instead.
OK, show of hands. How many of us have wanted to do that to a smartphone, just once?
Our world of tiny phones and big social networks has come up for a lot of mockery over the years, sometimes justifiably so. People have walked into manholes while texting (and then, predictably, tried to sue). Fatal car accidents have resulted from drivers with one hand on the wheel and both eyes on a phone. In our time, we’ve been just an arm’s length away from the manipulations of political saboteurs, the boasts of killers, and even the rise of Justin Bieber.
So is it any wonder that when Facebook and Instagram went kersplat for many people on Wednesday, the mass frustration was mixed with a little joking relief?
“Son, I wasn’t alive for the Donner Party or Pearl Harbor, but I am old enough to remember when both Facebook and Instagram were down at the same time during that terrible winter of ’19,” comedian John Fugelsang joked.
The memes! Will no one think of the memes?
More seriously, though – it’s human nature to be frustrated with the tools we depend on. It was true of the first computer. It was true of the automobile. It was probably true of the first ancient human to deliberately set a branch on fire, and then later discover his teenage son had burned up Dad’s favorite spear. “What do you mean, you wanted to see what would happen?”
But for every frustration, our tools also open a door. Sometimes some pretty amazing ones.
My wife Heather is often stuck at home because of chronic illness. Her phone opens the world to her, allowing her the experience and interaction that her body might otherwise bar.
An acquaintance of mine has a love of reading and a tiny apartment. His devices give him access to a library that would overwhelm a four-bedroom house.
I have dear friends halfway across the country whom I’ve never met, yet “visit” regularly. We’ve shared joys, sorrows, and horrible jokes as easily as any next-door neighbor.
I’m sure most of you could add more. The weather report in a pocket. The research library that’s open at 2 a.m. before a term paper is due. The chance to quickly learn a home repair, or some language basics, or just figure out the lyric you could never understand on the radio. On and on and on.
Sure, our tech can frustrate. It can be used badly, even horribly. But it doesn’t have to dehumanize. Used well, it can bring us together and open up possibilities that put a science fiction writer to shame.
It’s up to us. It always has been. And that is both a frightening and a wonderful possibility.
The future’s in our hands. What will we make of it?
Hopefully, something a little better than target practice.