Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: iPads, iDistractions and plugging your ears to silence the silence

Matt Labash Columnist

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Dear Matt, 

With the news of Apple’s attempt to goose flagging sales by resorting to deep discounts at Walmart, it seems like a good opportunity to kick them while they’re down. In that spirit, I ask, what the hell is the point of tablets anyway? I suspect the real answer is that it’s the same as wearing expedition grade apparel and driving an off-road SUV just to go to the mall. But on the merits, it strikes me that aside from instant-on, tablets do everything a mid-range laptop will do, only less well. You have to carry and connect a bunch of peripherals, you frequently have to hold it up rather than just letting gravity do the work.  The whole thing just seems needlessly tedious, akin to a preference for doing paperwork on a clipboard or eating off a tray while standing.  Your thoughts? – George Childress

Regular readers of this column know that I’m perfectly fine with kicking Apple when they’re down. Though I don’t mind kicking them when they’re up, either. Just kicking them is the important thing. I can’t speak with great specificity to the upsides/downsides of tablets, because the only way you’d catch me with one is if a mourner dropped it on my carcass during an open-casket viewing. So I feel completely comfortable subcontracting out the ad-hominem tablet attack to you, gentle reader. I actually love it when question-writers do the heavy lifting for me, since they/you work for free. Or as I prefer to think of it, for just seventy cents less an hour than what you’d make in one of Apple’s Chinese sweatshops.

I remember the first time that I encountered an iPad in the wild. I’d gone to a local steakhouse with a friend, and as we were tucking in for what I hoped was our usual civilized three hours of boozy conversation, he propped his iIntrusion against the Splenda bin in an attempt to keep it upright on the table, as is iDork custom. It was as though he were announcing to the world, “I am a gullible conspicuous consumer who is easily marketed to, buying more overpriced contraptions that I don’t need in order to keep myself tethered to an increasingly clamorous world that can only be silenced through a six-martini lunch, which my iInvader is now disrupting.”

But thinking nothing of the ungainliness of his new and suddenly essential toy, he’d have capped on me as being a preposterous philistine if I’d done the same with a book or a laptop, one of which is more aesthetically pleasing (book), while the other (laptop) provides greater utility for communicating  — i.e., for  typing in coherent sentences with 10 fingers instead of smudging up the screen with greasy thumbs. So I did my dutiful best to ridicule him. That’s what friends are for. But mostly, I just felt sorry for him. He reminded me of a more upscale version of those sad sucks you see in lower-class shopping malls, walking around with a Bluetooth permanently affixed to their ear, even when they aren’t talking to anyone. So as to say, “I am not technically on a call, but I want you to think I’m important enough to be expecting one at any moment, which is why I have this piece of unsightly gadgetry protruding from the side of my head.”

All of which is to state that of course tablets are dopey marketing gimmicks for people who don’t know they’re alive unless they’re buying more iDistractions. These are largely the same people who evangelize about the necessity of an all-in-one device, even as they continue using at least one of every other device. (Has anyone actually chucked their  phone or their computer or their gaming system as a result of buying an iPad?) Sure, it can be useful to carry all your iBelongings around in a handy device on a plane like a turtle carries his shell. Though as a friend in the IT industry recently admitted to me, “Research found that even teenage girls abandoned their iPads when they had ‘important’ work to do, such as post on Facebook. Social status was so essential that they couldn’t trust their iPads to handle an update.”

But in a way, I think we’re being too hard on tablets. They are just another symptom of the underlying disease. In some sense, they’re the perfect totem of our age. Most of us long ago became completely content to trade off authentic living for vicarious e-living, to keep ourselves perpetually distracted with the low hum of iBusyness. If you could transport yourself back in time, you’d see that in reality, nothing is more urgent today than it was 15 years ago. Except for our need to get pulled in 100 different concurrent directions by the machines that we pretend make our lives simpler. We have become so accustomed to kitting ourselves up with distractions, that we are now buying distractions to distract us from the distractions. That is what we now do. We run, and we run, and we run. And yet it’s never entirely clear what we’re running to. Or more likely, what we’re running from. Our thoughts? Ourselves? It’s as though we’re plugging our ears to silence the silence.

In his excellent collection of essays, “We Learn Nothing,” Tim Kreider writes of the difficulty of achieving stillness when he’s forced to sit in a hospital while tending his mother. He found himself becoming impatient with her for growing old and sick. He grew irritated at his own irritability. Attempting to distill what was really gnawing at him, he decided it was fear. And of this fear, Kreider writes:

“I wonder whether this same fear isn’t beneath our twenty-first-century intolerance for waits and downtime and silence. It’s as if, if we all had to stand still and shut up and turn off our machines for one minute, we’d hear the time passing and just start screaming. So instead we keep ourselves perpetually stunned with stimuli, thereby missing out on the very thing that we’re so scared of losing.”

Maybe the question isn’t what you’re missing when you don’t have your iPad, your iPhone and all the rest of your iDistractions on your iPerson. Maybe the real question is: what are you missing when you do?

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.