Doing Frozen Time: A 30-Year Inmate's View Of Modern Technology

Originally published on February 15, 2017 by Forbes

David Simonsen

By David Simonsen written for Prison Lives

I have never held a cell phone, much less used one to text or take a selfie. I didn't know what a "selfie" was until a couple of years ago. I have never owned a personal computer, much less "surfed" the internet. The internet didn't even exist the day I landed in prison, nearly 30 years ago.

Ronald Reagan was president. Frogger was one of the most popular video games in the world. The highest rated television program was The Cosby Show. The last movie I saw as a new release at the theater: Platoon.

My calendar is stuck in 1988. The penitentiary walls form the lining of the time capsule I live in. What is now considered to be ancient, what I last knew as "modern technology" is still current to me. The only signals that it is not come in the form of looks of bewilderment on the faces of new arrivals when I divulge that my last TV set required the turning of a nob or that my phone had a rotary dial.

The world beyond the walls doesn't seem to be able to exist without the modern conveniences. Can you imagine life without a smart phone, for example? I can. In fact, I'm not allowed to exist with such things. To have my hands on an internet-enabled device would mean an immediate trip to solitary confinement, a place that offers nothing more technologically advanced than a paperback book.

On one hand, I'm envious, knowing how severely I am missing out. The conveniences that technology affords would allow me to do incredible things with the time I must serve. I spend my time in as many positive pursuits as possible, despite my confinement. Unfortunately, hwever, this often requires outside assistance to access the information and resources I need to keep advancing. Internet access would allow a self-sufficiency that I can only dream of.

At the same time, though, from this perspective, it all looks a little absurd. Everyone seems to be completely dependent on technology, almost enslaved by it. The phone is handcuffed to nearly every living unincarcerated person, requiring its holder to be constantly accessible and to respond with an immediacy that looks more intrusive than convenient.

It seems the world is completely dependent on it, as if life can't be enjoyed without it. When I watch a televised event, for instance, I see a thousand cell phones raised trying to capture a moment on stage, a thousand people almost completely missing the best parts because of it.

Recent data states that the average amount of time spent on the internet is in the neighborhood of 25 hours per week, a part time job spent browsing, checking email, and camped out on social networking sites. I cannot relate. It sounds exhausting.

There is a trickling of authorized technology making its way through the prison walls, though. Just a taste. In my prison, for example, I can now purchase what is essentially, I'm told, an iPod from over a decade ago. Today, I have the "privilege" (the prison administration's word, not mine) of downloading overpriced Mp3 music. So, I've stuck my toe in, now buying music as I can afford it -- all 70s and 80s artists, of course. A relative fortune spent on something I should easily still have on cassettes.

Now rumor has it that tablets are beginning to be introduced to prisons across the nation, which will include games, eBooks, magazine subscriptions, and other features, charged by the minute. It's a great money-making scheme for the prison systems, but I'm not sure what's wrong with playing cards and publications you can hold onto.

Living in the nostalgia of my time, without the distraction of the fast-moving world, isn't so bad. It's worked for my entire lifetime. I'm contented. Why change now?

From the contented inside view looking out, it makes me wonder if the world might be a happier, less stressed place without the nonstop pressures of technological "advancement." Or just maybe self-driving cars will indeed be the key to all future happiness. 

Perhaps one day I'll find out, on that morning I'm released from my prison confines wearing my old trusty Levi's button-fly 501 blue jeans clocking my first minutes of freedom on my classic Swatch watch. But until then, 1988 sounds like a perfect year to be stuck in.

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