Watching You by Ron Steinman

In the world of digital, everything changes almost too fast for us to properly analyze. Today many of us carry cell phones that are really hand-held computers, but the premise of this piece before the full advent of smart phones that I originally wrote for The Digital Filmmaker in October 2006 is little changed. For this edition, though there are changes, the main idea behind the piece is the same. We should be ever vigilant about how the many eyes of the many devices in our lives affect who we are and how we act. Does it matter? I think it does. It is my reason for posting this on my Notebooks blog in 2011. Enjoy, but keep smiling.

This column it is about life in the digital age. For me the problem started with a red light that suddenly appeared one night in September mysteriously and without warning on both my TV sets. When I could not sleep, I looked over to the TV set in my bedroom and a red light I had not noticed before, stared me in the face. I tried turning the set on and off several times. The red light remained. I went into my living room and the red light also shown brightly on that TV set. Doing what I did in the bedroom made no difference. The red lights remained.
Then I looked around my apartment. I have broadband through my cable provider. Attached to one TV I have a cable box, a CD/DVD player and a fast becoming obsolete VHS player. I have more wires in and around the rooms I live in than I ever imagined I would need. A green light was on the VHS player. As much as I tried, I could not turn it off. I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My apartment is small, but comfortable. Along with the just mentioned digital devices, I have two telephones and two power strips that are always on, their red lights happily glowing. There are two digital clocks that are part of my TV sets. My broadband connection, part of which is on my desk and the other part of which is on the floor blink continuously. The light that shines through most of my necessary gadgets is green, not a real green, mind, but a bright green as if from another planet.
When I lived in the suburbs in a six-bedroom house, I had even more digital devices. There were at least eight telephones, 2 microwaves, five TV sets, four digital clocks, a automatic garage opener, an automatic in-ground watering system, several computers, computerized washer and dryer, a full alarm system for every window and every door, and probably a few more devices that have slipped through the cracks that were always on.
Those red lights, my blinking clock and actually all things digital are still invading my space and I do not know how to stop the onslaught. All things digital is the key. Everything is always on. I cannot turn anything off unless I pull one of the many plugs controlling the various devices. Each lighted appliance uses tiny, almost infinitesimal watts of power that we ignore because alone we think their use does not add up to very much. But think of all the devices over the whole world that uses these small bits of power. Think, too, and how the watts they use add up, especially with the high price of oil that never seems to stop rising. You get the idea. Or I hope you do.
That is only part of my problem. I cannot help but think of Franz Kafka, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Philip K Dick, and Thomas M Disch, and, yes, even Stephen King. Truth, the truth I am witnessing, is stranger than fiction. Consider the following theory. I wonder if the devices that we bring into our homes and into our lives, many of which are necessary are there for another purpose. Are they quietly and secretly watching us? Are they recording our every move? If they are, what are they doing with the information? Are they storing it for future use? Are they cataloguing it? Are they selling it to marketing experts or to another planet? Could they be enjoying everything they see for their own pleasure? Unless those watchers have empty lives, I do not see what they could be getting from all those vacant hours and all those straight on views of mostly mundane lives. I do believe that in each location, my past home and my current home, in hotels and restaurants where these devices abound, each one records everything we do.
You may not believe any of this. If you do not, I will not argue with you. Who is to say I am wrong and you are right. Why, though, are those lights, both the red and the green, always on? If they are not watching me and you, your friends, family and neighbors, what are they doing? I refuse to believe they are there to remind us of their machine’s presence. There has to be something more.
The energy these billions of digital devices use are beyond calculation. Think of all the barrels of oil wasted on listening in and recording mostly dull lives. Do people know this is happening? I doubt it. I know those eyes peering out from the innards of all modern machines use far more energy than anyone realizes. I have a suggestion how you can find the answer to how much energy the digital machines in your home use. This is a story worth pursuing for an enterprising reporter. There are others far better equipped to handle the machinery of statistics than I can. They should chase this story. Advanced math, physics and chemistry are important here.
We are in a vicious circle, though. For every new invention, there is another digital device quickly in use. Pre-digital devices in homes and offices are fast becoming obsolete. Those red and green lights are following everyone everywhere. Can we halt the invasion of the energy suckers? Probably not. Perhaps it is time to bring back the slide rule, the plastic pocket case and leaky ballpoint pens. Perhaps. No matter. It is always worth invoking the spirit of Kafka, Poe, Lovecraft and their kind. I am certain these geniuses of the absurd and weird would have a great time working these elements into their stories.
Wait. Remember the red lights on my TV sets that stayed on no matter what. Before I could call my broadband provider, I woke up the other morning to see that they had disappeared. Gone. There were no more red lights on my TV sets. Days later as I write, the red lights are still gone. I will not make that phone call. I plan to leave well enough alone, at least for now. I am sure the red lights are recharging, getting ready for another onslaught. Until the red lights return, which they surely will, I will leave well enough alone. Only time will tell. Then I will cry for help. If I can.
I spoke too soon. The other morning I woke with a start. Just when I thought everything was fine, once again, staring at me from my TV in the bedroom, there was the tiny red light, again. The red light was also on the TV set in my empty living room. That is two for two. In the bedroom, the red light had nothing interesting to watch except my Shih Tzu, Lacey, and me, both of us mostly asleep. Point is, the red light is on, still is here, still watching whatever I do. I will never get used to it.

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