Saturday, June 08, 2013

Directions to an Unknown Location

I joined the Twenty-First Century, communication-ally speaking, that is.  I, finally I guess you could say, bought a smartphone.  
It took me a long time to get one, even though I wanted one the first time I saw one.  It was at Comic-Con one year, about the time they first came out.  I'd made arrangements to meet an artist I had been in contact with online after find out we'd both be attending.  We started talking.  Friends of hers showed up, and then some friends of those friends.  It was getting late and eventually we decided, all twelve of us, to eat dinner together.  
We made the rounds of asking each other what we wanted or could eat.  After a few minutes of talking it came to do us needing to find a Mexican restaurant that served vegetarian food that was within walking distance from where we stood (about four blocks, on account of someone's hip) that didn't need reservations for a party or size.  
Hearing that, I started looking around to see if there was a burger place I could grab something at while they found such a place.  I didn't swivel my head more than twenty degrees when my artist friend said, "Found one!"  
She had one of them newfangled iPhones.  There was a Mexican place that had a vegetarian menu three blocks up and two over.  By the time I craned my head over her shoulder to take a look, she had a map with directions on it.  We followed them.  After a twenty minute wait we were seated and ordering our phone.  
I remember thinking how cool that was.  A Star Trek moment.  Only if Lt. Uhura's voice could be heard coming over the speaker giving us directions would it have been cooler.  I'm willing to bet, by this time, there's an app for that.  
But I still didn't get one, for various sundry reasons.  They were expensive.  Plus the plans the services sold you with them were also rather pricey.  And, I kept asking myself, did I really NEED one?  As time went on, and other people had them, there would be other people in whatever group I was with that had one.  They would be the designated navigator and "thing-looker-upper."  Stick close to that person, and I had all the benefit of having one.  
I finally did get one, though.  The fifth generation of that first iPhone.  My company gives me a cell phone allowance that helps pay for the plan, which have gone down in recent years now that the technology has matured.  I've been using it for the past couple weeks now.  And while there has been more than enough verbiage about the smartphone phenomena, I felt like putting my two cents in.  
First off, I want to apology to all those people I made fun of who I've watched walking around with their faces bent toward their phone's screens.  I've become one of you.  To an extent.  I kept it in my pocket while I driving to avoid the temptation of texting or talking.  I do what to get a bracket for it to put it on my dashboard.  The Maps app has this cool GPS direction feature...  I mean just the other day I was walking from my apartment and it told me I was right on the corner of Del Mar and Marengo and when I looked up I was, like, RIGHT THERE...
Anyway.  It does draw your attention.  I keep taking it out and...  Checking.  It has all the alarms and signals and bells and whistles you could want to tell you when you got a call, message, Facebook request, new Tweet.  I mean, this thing has reminders that remind you at a certain time, but when you're at a certain place.  I tried it.  I created a reminder to look for my tape measure when I got home, and sure enough, right when I pulled into the driveway of my apartment building, the reminder chime went off.  
Of course, I was thinking about looking for the tape measure the entire drive home, waiting to see if it would work or not.  So I didn't really need the reminder.  
Which is the come to the conclusion I've reached: I don't really need it.
I'm not saying disappointed.  Far from it.  I enjoy having and using it as much as any device I've every owned.  I've talked to my folks about twice as much as usual, though that is admittedly more a function of the unlimited calls I now have with the new plan.  Texting is a lot easier on this phone.  The other day, after telling her I didn't have cable to watch the College World Series, my mom kept texting me stats about the Fullerton vs. UCLA game the rest of the evening.  
"Can I games tied 3-3 into extra innings."
"damn 5 to 3 UCLA.  Titans at bat."
"Titans have one man on 1st and 2nd one out."  
"2 out to men on base."  
"UCLA won"
Except for the "damns" she did about as good a Vin Scully.  
I've been looking at all this empty app space I have, trying to figure out how to fill it.  I've already got a Kanji dictionary and a Japanese-English dictionary.  And a Japanese flash card app.  A PDF reader.  iBooks.  
Facebook is so much better on a smartphone.  It's actually interesting now.  
I got an app for my local movie theater.  I went to movies last week, but saw this huge line.  Did that stop me?  Of course not!  I bought tickets with my app, swiped the phone over the reader, and I was inside like THAT (use the finger-snap app on your phone if you have one)!
I've heard about this app made by a South Korean programmer.  With it, you can visit the DMZ between North and South Korea, look at it through your smart phone's camera, and it will erase all the barbed wire and defenses so you can see what the terrain would look like if the countries were unified.  
I've also heard about a suite of apps used by DIY healthcare fanatics.  Apps to turn your phone into a stethoscope, see how many calories you're burning, even do an EKG on you.  During the NPR news article I was listening, they even had someone who diagnosed himself with Crone's Syndrome before his doctor did.  Not sure where he stuck his phone or what app he used.  Not sure I want to know, come to think of it.  
All in all, though, it seems to me that these apps are things we put on these smart phones to give us reasons to use them.  To justify to desire to...  Check.  
I remember having a similar feeling when I got my first computer, way back in 1976.  It was a Mac Plus.  I got it once I decided that I wanted to be a professional writer and publish the stories I was writing.  About the time I got the computer I read a magazine article that described computers as "solutions looking for problems."  I could feel the truth in that statement.  
We've gone way past that point and are firmly ensconced in our digital lifestyle, but I think there is to it still.  It's the reason why I keep checking my phone when there are no messages or voice mails from anyone.  
These devices are our modern oracles.  We're looking to them to tell us something we don't know.  Something that will make a difference.  If not from the voice from some God or Prophet, then from the collective wisdom (such as it is) from our peers.  
At the end of the first week with my new phone, I was laying on the couch late at night trying out some of its features.  I was asking Siri questions to see how well she did.  I now know where the fifteen closest pizza parlors are to my apartment.  
The questions started getting silly.  And rude.  Siri's programers anticipated some of them.  Those she'd answer, "Now, now, Erick."  
Right about the time I was thinking it was time to get to bed, I mumbled my last question to her.  "Siri...  Show me where I...  Where I can find...  True happiness."  Or something like that.  
I was expecting what I'd come to learn was her pat answer, "I don't know what...," fill in the blank, in this case, "True happiness," "...Is.  Would you like me to look it up for you?"  
Instead, she cleared my screen and said, "Providing directions..."  A map appeared.  It drew a blue line from my apartment in Pasadena, CA to...
A spot in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Gulf of Guinea, about five hundred miles south-southwest of Lagos, Nigeria.  Seriously.  I've shown people.  
I sat up on the couch and looked at the screen in the dark of my room.  "How do I get there?"
"I do not have directions to this Unknown Location," Siri replied.  Teasing bitch.
"Now, now, Erick."  
I've tried to repeat it, but it hasn't come up again.  And I found out while writing this that the spot has been cleared from my recent searches.  Too bad.  This is the type of thing we want our computers and smart phones to tell us, besides where all the cute cat pictures are located.  It's why we keep checking.  We're hoping our digital oracles can show us how to be smarter or more daring than we think ourselves to be.  
Or something in the app store that will do the trick.


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