Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs And The Erosion Of Situational Awareness

Steve Jobs has died, but I feel little compulsion to buy an Apple product in tribute to the man. Not that I'm any Luddite. I have a laptop at work (Dell) and a tower-style PC at home (also Dell), and between the two I already commit obscene portions of my waking hours to email, blogging, web site maintenance, word processing, software development, web surfing, social networking and much else. I need some space between work and home in which I can just be myself, wandering through the environment unburdened by the temptations presented by electronic devices. Just as nature intended. Cro-Magnon-ilke, I don't even own a cell phone. However - also Cro-Magnon-like - I am able to remain alert to my environment, ever ready (if not always willing) to plunge my spear into prey or some hairy-backed dude from an enemy tribe. And that is also what nature intended.

Last week I blogged about the science of being streetwise, which boils down to something called "situational awareness". I first encountered this term in a discussion about the differences between Nerds and Jocks. The author had observed that Nerds tended to be focused on their own private worlds, and were often clueless about changes in either their physical or their social environment. Jocks, on the other hand, were always on guard for a ball to catch, a girl to impress, a rival to overtake or a dollar to be made. That is "situational awareness", and it seems to be the main advantage of those guys so annoyingly classed by the pick-up gurus as "alpha males". It allows would-be entrepreneurs to sense "opportunity", athletes to score, and soldiers and policemen to do their jobs. Even if you're a nondescript pedestrian, situational awareness will keep you from getting mugged or run over or even just from falling into an open manhole. I prefer to think that I'm like that.

Most people, these days, aren't. One reason I don't feel a need to buy an Apple product is because I see them everywhere. Their utter ubiquity precludes any curiosity I might have had about them. On the T, on the streets - all around me I see people with iPods plugged into their ears, reading things on their iPads, clamping their iPhones to their faces - or, more often than not - just checking their email on the damn things with flicks of their soft little fingers or diddling with some infantile computer game. And I see them doing all this while they are dodging traffic, stumbling down alleyways and shuffling past shady-looking strangers (like, indeed, me). A lot of these folks are young, I know, and I've heard it said that the youngest among us are better at multi-tasking. But anyone should be able to do any task better if they pay full attention to that task while they're doing it. Instead, the young have turned themselves into an entire generation of blinkered Nerds.

A few weeks ago a young woman was assaulted at an inner city Orange Line station. Apparently, she was strolling along fiddling with some electronic device, and some dude came up on her and... You can imagine the rest. The news team reporting this item put a damper on their happy talk for a moment to warn the public about Paying Attention To Their Surroundings. Especially after dark, if you're a nubile young lady, in not the best of Boston neighborhoods. At least she wasn't driving - another venue where "situational awareness" has been eroded right and left by a biblical plague of electronic devices.

Violent crime is not as bad these days as it had sometimes been in previous decades, so sacrificing vigilance to the pleasure of being perpetually wired may not be as costly as it could be. But times change, and eventually the need for vigilance will return. All those people with their precious senses glued to their Jobs-ian iProducts, barely aware of where they're going - much less of what might stand in their way - will suddenly become vulnerable again. Their plight will give new meaning to the phrase "Electric Sheep" as a horde of unplugged-in wolves descends on them.

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