Published in the October 2006
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.27, No.3.
A Life Less Mindful
by Jeremy Whitlock
Bob was the kind of guy that always seemed in control of his life; he positively radiated energy and self-confidence.
"How on earth did he end up here?" I ask myself as I round a corner and the words loom over an archway: "Respite Home for the Incurably Empowered".
Later I ask the same question of the doctor as we stand before a wall of one-way glass. On the other side my friend sits apart from the other patients, pale and oblivious. His mouse hand is twitching. Drool runs from the corner of his mouth.
"Sad, really", says the doctor, rubbing his chin, "but a classic case. It all started with 200-channel cable TV. Guys like Bob jumped at the chance to program their own entertainment."
He draws a deep breath. "That was the start of mass empowerment."
I'm a bit confused, but the doctor continues.
"Around the same time PCs pervaded the workplace, but rather than making jobs easier they were seen as tools for downloading more work to the individual. All the time, it was called 'empowerment'.
"Guys like Bob didn't stand a chance of course. They eat that stuff up. And when the Internet came he never looked back. Internet..."
He says this last word through his teeth as he turns away.
"The choice, all the choice," I hear him say. "It always starts out looking like a vast improvement on things. We're in the Age of Choice. The Era of Empowerment."
I'm starting to figure it out. "He took on too much… choice?" I ask.
"He was sucked in!" the doctor whirls on me. "Bob did it all! At work he was doing all his own documents, graphics, slideshows, personnel forms, QA forms, project accounting forms. It's inverse-pyramid management.
"At home he was self-diagnosing with the medical websites, doing travel research online, booking flights, downloading music, reading ten different on-line newspapers, watching a hundred home videos a day on You-Tube, reading newsgroups, blogs, e-magazines."
I nod: "The global village".
"The global mall!" the doctor shoots back. He takes another breath and steps closer.
"Did you know he puts out his garbage in six different bins, according to category and sub-category of recycling, compost or trash? He goes to the grocery or hardware store and uses the self-checkout - why? Because he can. He hasn't let anyone pump his gas in twenty years. His movie theatre has 30 screens and he can buy his supper right in the lobby.
"When he relaxes in front of the TV he's now got 600 channels to choose from, in time-shifted digital satellite glory, and a PVR to let him watch twice as much in half the time."
The doctor pauses and brushes back a lock of grey hair. Behind him Bob is twitching.
"But the worst," he slowly adds, "is Wikipedia. A crack-house of empowerment. A self-declared cyber encyclopedia with millions of entries, that anyone can edit. Anyone at all…"
He looks over his shoulder at Bob, sadly.
"Bob edited. Bob corrected. He fixed mistakes, from simple grammar to outright lies. And as fast as he fixed things, spotty teenagers in Bangkok and Cleveland changed it all back.
"That's one of the biggest problems with mass empowerment," the doctor turns his gaze back to me, "The idiots have the keys to the bus."
I'm beginning to understand why I hadn't heard from Bob for months prior to his breakdown.
"Of course the Blackberry made this a 24/7 obsession", the doctor continues, "Sleep was not a priority. The crash came when the government distributed time-of-use hydro meters. Bob was up anyway so he spent any spare time he had calculating optimization routines for his appliance usage. Months later the government announced the result of this latest empowerment: electricity usage went up, because millions of customers suddenly found out just how cheap electricity was on a per-kWh basis.
"Bob ended up here about that time."
Driving home, through the arch and down the road, I wonder at poor Bob's fate: cautionary tale or the isolated collapse of an overachieving personality? A familiar ringtone dashes my thoughts and nearly sends me off the road.
Of course I answer it.