The connectedness of things

by Sarah Firisen

Network11_bThe week before last I changed the sheets on my bed. Stripped the fitted sheet, the pillow cases, bundled it all up in my arms and threw it in the washing machine and turned it on (I’m lucky enough to have a washer/dryer in my apartment in NYC). About 3 minutes went by, maybe 4. I suddenly felt that something was wrong, something was missing, I looked on the kitchen counter, on the coffee table, ran into the bedroom and looked on my bedside table, but the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach told me what I already knew; I ran to the washer, opened up the top, reached inside, felt around and there it was, my iPhone. The sheets weren’t soaked, but they were pretty wet, a decent amount of water was already in the washer. I knew the drill from when my daughter had dropped her phone in the toilet, but in the panic of the moment there were steps I forgot or overlooked. Luckily I had bulked ordered Arborio rice (I like risotto) and so quickly dumped 3 bags worth into a bowl. Took the phone out of its case, which in this circumstance had probably done more harm than good, trapping the water nicely. Put the phone in the rice, put the bowl in a warm dry spot as dictated by the various guides to such things I found on the internet, which luckily I could still access via my laptop and prayed. My daughter scolded me – “and you know, you have to wait at least 72 hours!!” Her concern was hardly selfless; the plan was that when I was eligible to upgrade in just over 6 weeks, she’d get my old phone to replace her almost totally defunct iPhone 5.

Those 72 hours were hell. I have no house phone, so no way to call anyone and even if I did, I don’t know anyone’s phone numbers except my aunt and uncle in England because they’ve had the same phone number since I was 7 and my ex-husband who’s had his mobile number at least 10 years.

I do everything on my phone: banking, airline check-ins (I fly a lot) and boarding passes, pay my rent, stay in touch with loved ones, read the New York Times and the New Yorker, read books, and listen to music. Without it, I’m ashamed to say I was bereft. I couldn’t work out because I really need to listen to music to motivate me and I had no way to do that. Could only communicate with friends and family through email and Facebook from my laptop which left me rather housebound. And there are some personal details at the intersection of personal hygiene and technology that I can’t even bring myself to report with greater clarity. Suffice it to say, I was lost. It was a very long 3 days. Actually more like 2 ½ because I cracked around 11am Monday morning, took it out of the rice and tried to turn it on.

The Genius at the Apple store later told me that this rice “miracle” is bogus. That any phone that turned on after it, probably would have after 3 days left alone on a table to dry. I don’t know. What I do know is that my phone was dead as a dodo. It was still under a limited warranty and so for $300 I was able to replace it with an identical phone which I will use until I’m eligible for my upgrade in few weeks and can hand this phone down to my equally technology addicted teen.

The relief when I held that replacement phone in my hand is truly shameful to relay. The past few days it had felt like I was missing a limb. I know that somehow we used to navigate our way around without mobile mapping apps, I just have no memory of how we did that. How did we find places to eat and shop without Yelp? Was I going to have to search under my bed for my TV’s remote control now that I couldn’t use my phone to control it? Over that weekend, I’d had to cancel social plans with friends because the concept of making a plan that then couldn’t be modified at all because I’d be unable to receive those last minute “just running 30 mins late”, “could we move this to the Village” texts was inconceivable to all of us. How did we used to do this? I guess we made plans and then didn’t change them? I just can’t remember exactly how it worked.

I’m writing this on a plane on my way from JFK to San Francisco. The Wi-Fi isn’t working and the apologetic tone that the attendant used to announce this used to be reserved for relaying that the toilets wouldn’t flush or that they’d run out of food. People audibly groaned. I felt myself twitching with anxiety. 5 and a half hours. A lot could happen in that time. What if my boss needed me (and it’s Sunday)? My kids? My boyfriend? How would I know that Amazon had delivered my package and that my payment had been received by Chase?

I’m on my way to San Francisco to run a leadership development meeting focused on disruptive innovations and the impact they’re likely to have on my company’s clients and beyond. One of the trends we’re looking at is the Internet of Things. This McKinsey article states “bottom-up analysis for the applications we size estimates that the IoT has a total potential economic impact of $3.9 trillion to $11.1 trillion a year by 2025. At the top end, that level of value—including the consumer surplus—would be equivalent to about 11 percent of the world economy”.

The internet of things, where a bunch of things will be connected to each other, has its detractors and its promoters. Is it totally overhyped or a concept whose surface we haven’t even begun to scratch? “The IoT will fundamentally alter how humans interact with the physical world, and will ultimately register as more significant than the internet itself.”? I err on the side of believing the latter. If the history of the last 20 years has shown anything, it’s that most of us fundamentally underestimated how dependent we’d become on technology and its ability to make our lives easier, more convenient, more immediate and more mobile. And these changes, this dependency has been moving at an exponentially fast pace; 6 years ago I had a Blackberry that really couldn’t do much more than receive work emails. If I left it at home I barely blinked. I remember getting my first smartphone and the world of possibilities it seemed to open up to me. I had no idea just what it would bring.

I recently got a Fitbit. A lot of people I knew had them and raved. I wasn’t sure. Apart from anything else, I’m not someone who likes things on my wrists; I don’t wear bracelets and I haven’t worn a watch in over 30 years. The first couple of days it felt really alien. Now it feels weird when I take it off to charge it. Human beings are incredibly adaptable. It’s one of the reasons we’re still here. Not only have I got used to the feel of something on my wrist, I find I like being able to glance at my wrist to see the time (there’s a built in watch) rather than getting out my phone. It’s all very retro in a way, but it’s quickly become what I’m used to. It’s amazing what we can not only get used to but come to depend on. So much of what I’ve been reading about in my research on the Internet of Things and other technologies, 3D printing among them, seems like the stuff of sci-fi but actually they’re mostly not of the future, they’re of now. And will very soon be household concepts. Of all the things you can already do with 3D printers, perhaps the most fun is to print personalized gummies. I read this and all I could think of was the replicator in Star Trek. It’s coming. And soon. Gene Roddenberry should have bought stock in HP all those years ago.

I’m sure there are many people out there reading this who are far less dependent on their phones than I am, self-righteously judging me for my 72-hour freak-out. All I can say is, let’s touch base again in 5 years.