Tuesday, January 31, 2012

And we adapt so well to captivity

You get to a certain age, and you start thinking you’ve seen much of what life has to offer—at least at the mall. But there it was, no bigger than my hand, and the furry critter was crawling all over the sales rep who insisted that a sugar bear was just what our household needed.

Last I’d heard, Sugar Bear was a cartoon bear that adorned boxes of Super Sugar Crisp, wearing a preppy blue turtleneck sweater. Related to koalas and kangaroos and also called “sugar gliders,” these have appeared on Animal Planet and are billed as the perfect ‘pocket-pets.’” They’re well behaved and appropriate for young children. They bond to their human “families,” they get along with non-slithering pets, they’re loyal, and they love to play. When you have one, in fact, you’ll think of yourself in a whole new way: as a set of monkey bars.

Other people aren’t so complimentary. Sugar bears bite. They love to play so much that you can just forget about anything else you like to do, like read things online. Cats and dogs love them…the way women love chocolate. And they can’t be potty trained, though they tend to pee and poop on members of their human “families,” especially in their pockets. What do you expect? They’re marsupials—they know pockets from birth. Oh, and you don’t spend hundreds on just one; it needs a friend. So you should get a second, of the opposite sex. Of course, you know what comes next.

I’m sure the truth, other than their curious aversion to snakes, lies somewhere in between. But I have a bigger problem with a creature that’s captured in the rainforests of Australia or Indonesia and transported ten thousand miles to press me into servitude. Really now: If I so wanted something in my pocket that required incessant attention, a smart phone is all I’d need.

When Katie and Andrew were much younger, they received Tamagotchis in a birthday-party goody bag, and I considered it a credit to their intelligence that within scant weeks they left the beeping slave drivers for dead, virtually doomed to starvation. I have no doubt the kids would do the same if they played Farmville—and on the scale of Tyson Foods. It makes a father proud.

Yet today’s web-enabled handhelds have become today’s Tamagotchis, and there’s no condemning these critters. They text us, they comment on our status, they play music and videos, and do myriad other things with all the apps—little software programs, for the uninitiated—you can download to them. (Alas, there’s no virtual sugar-bear app.) They never shut up. And they’re creating a race of sub-human beings who walk while looking downward, banging into one another and into the path of cars—whose drivers are also checking their little screens instead of the road.

I know…because I’m trying not to become one. With my new iPod Touch, occasionally a very handy doodad, I’m still trying to find all the settings I need to set so it stops calling me with every IM, email and social-network comment someone sends my way. It doesn’t yet feel like a sugar bear in my pocket.

But the day it does, I’ll just have to download a Pampers app.

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