The real reason behind our gadget obsession


(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY We live in a complex, chaotic world. Our bills keep piling up while our savings continue to dwindle. Finding a job is way too hard and our economy is way too soft. And the deadly attacks on the US consulate in Libya were a cold, hard reminder that we still live in a dangerous world.

And yet it’s fascinating to watch the morning headlines about tragedy in the Middle East slowly but surely giving way to images of Apple’s newly launched iPhone 5 and Facebook’s first-ever stock pop. If you ever needed evidence of a balance to the universe, a yin and yang relationship between all things, look no further.

We don’t have enough money to pay the bills, but we somehow manage to shell out hundreds for a smartphone or an iPad, not to mention hefty monthly service charges. We never seem to have enough time to get everything done, and yet we always seem to have time to text, tweet, update our Facebook timeline and obsessively check email.

There’s actually a very good reason for that. In the midst of a crazy, out-of-control world full of 24×7 bad news, we can always find some measure of comfort and escape in the palm of our hands. Our music, our videos, our contacts, our friends and family, our websites, even our favorite TV shows — everything to soothe and reassure us that all is well in the world — are all there at the touch of a display.

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Our gadgets are like comfort food times a thousand because they’re there for us anytime, anywhere. From the moment we wake up in the morning and reach over to check our email until we fall blissfully asleep in the middle of an online Scrabble game. Comfort isn’t just for food anymore. And we don’t have to wait to get home and watch the tube to escape.

And make no mistake, it’s the comfort and escape that we need. I bet you didn’t know that if you give dogs too much area to roam in, they become much more stressed and anxious. To them, every acre is just more space to look out for threats and protect. They become fearful and, yes, can also become aggressive as a result.

But if you call them to you, tell them to sit and give them a biscuit, or if you toss a stick for them to fetch and play with, their tails wag and all is well again. Why? Because their master has comforted them with food and distracted them. They’ve completely forgotten about guarding the property. For a moment, they’re free of fear. They’re happy.

People are not exactly the same. After all, we have the intelligence to understand our surroundings and determine if there is indeed a potential threat or something to be afraid of. But if you give people too much chaos and complexity, too many things to worry about that are out of our control, we also become more fearful and stressed. And so we seek comfort and escape.

About 10 years ago when Apple’s iPod was new, I contacted my favorite software geek and early-adopter friend, Bob, and asked him, “So Bob, what’s up with the whole obsession over this iPod thing?”

He replied, “It’s surprisingly comforting to have my music with me wherever I go.” Since then, iPod and iTunes have exploded.

Years later, when I first started hearing about Facebook, I again emailed Bob to find out what all the hoopla was about. He wrote, “Facebook is great for keeping up with friends, not business relationships. I find it a great escape to see what others are thinking or doing throughout the day. Not really much chatting, just status and thoughts.”

Bob has always been way ahead of the curve on that sort of thing, sort of like an oracle. So when I finally got an iPhone, Bob sent me my first text, “Welcome to the Apple Matrix.” Now, wasn’t The Matrix just an elaborate facade so humans could be lulled into a sense of well-being while their bodies were farmed by an evil cyber intelligence? Well, couldn’t be. That was just a movie.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Candace Nast

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