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Digital paradise not without hazards

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I was late getting a smartphone, quite content with my small flip phone for calls and a pocket-sized iTouch for emails and entertainment. But when both crashed about the same time, I realized that an iPhone was simply an iTouch with telephone and I joined the modern world of smartphones.

It is amazing how quickly smartphones transformed our everyday lives. Remember when a mobile telephone was a receiver tucked inside a great big box or bag? And so expensive that only the affluent could afford one? (And I hate to bear bad news, but if you can remember bagged mobile phones, you are officially old.)

Now, almost everyone I know or see has a smartphone of some kind, frequently held in front of their face. The cartoon that used to be funny of two people sitting across from each other and texting, sometimes each other, is no longer funny. It has become life.

In almost every restaurant I enter, I can see people at their tables or in booths staring at their smartphones. At the ritzier places, diners may hold their phones on their laps just under the table and occasionally sneak a quick peek. I’ve actually seen teenagers texting each other across a table instead of opening their mouths and talking.

And I have also learned, through uncomfortable experience, not to answer so quickly when I think I hear someone talking to me. They’re not. And sometimes the earpiece they are wearing is a dead giveaway that they are not just talking into the air.

I’m just as guilty as anybody else. I use my phone for an alarm clock and keep it close throughout the day, answering calls, checking the news, Googling (and that’s now an official word) information, reading my emails and sometimes listening happily to an audiobook or music through my Bluetooth earphones. Even dinosaurs can adapt.

The technology is addictive, and it has enriched our lives. You do almost anything you want on your phone — order dinner to be delivered, check a bank account or pay a bill, scan the local newspaper’s website or Facebook page, text friends and spouses, get GPS directions and stream or purchase a digital version of the latest movies. Last week I booked an airline flight on my phone and later used the phone’s virtual boarding pass to get on the plane. It was almost too easy.

And the clever computer people, always looking to advance our lives and make a quick buck along the way, are now finding ways to integrate our homes and offices into our smartphones. You can now control just about everything in your home (locks, windows, temperature, television and more) from your smartphone. Through Facetime you can see as well as talk to your friends. I read about a refrigerator that can monitor your food (at least the cold stuff) and automatically call the grocery store and buy more when it runs low.

And I’ve grown to love meetings on Skype or Zoom where you can have a real face-to-face discussion for as long as it takes, then turn off the computer and you’re home. No long travel times. I used to get late-night Facetime calls from a professor friend in China, who was just starting her day. When I think about where each of us are while we are talking, I am in awe.

And in the last few years, we now have Siri, Alexa, Cortana and other voice assistants who can hear and talk to us, interactively carrying out our commands. The programmers have a sense of humor. The digital voice sometimes crack a joke. Somebody set up Siri so that a certain combination of responses could prompt her to say a dirty word. My smartphone already tries to tell me when to go to bed.

As we digitize ourselves into the 21st century, we also need to be mindful of the dangers that lurk in our new world. My smartphone is becoming besieged by automatic calls I hate. Folks who get their news from Facebook are way too frequently falling for misinformation or missing important stories they need. Bank accounts are being drained remotely on the internet. Any technology that controls your life can also ruin it.

But today I read something that scared me, and ought to worry anybody. A middle school student in Indiana told Siri on his iPhone, “I’m going to shoot up a school.” And Siri, ever eager to please, gave him a list of schools he could choose, based on his location.

The 13-year-old was not serious, but he was arrested when he shared his results on social media. And his potentially deadly “prank” reminded me that all of these gadgets and apps that now rule our lives are no better or whose than the people who program them and those who use them.

And in every Eden, there is always a snake. Be careful in our digital paradise.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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