Put Away Your Damn Fartphone

grim reaper

(They) keep you doped with religion and sex and TV—John Lennon, from his song “Working Class Hero”

Last week I was sitting in a co-worker’s cubicle, discussing an art rendering for a project, and I heard a familiar jingle. Is that my phone? I thought, instinctively reaching for my pants pocket. Couldn’t be Dave’s. I’m the only one who still has a non-internet flip phone.

I’ll be darned if Dave didn’t pull out his own flip phone. Later, I told him how good it felt to know I wasn’t alone in shunning the internet phone. He nodded and smiled, then went into something about iPhone costs, and how China was having the last laugh on the U.S.

Then, this morning, I saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how worldwide feelings of loneliness are becoming epidemic, that the U.K. actually has a Minister of Loneliness to deal with this problem, and that studies show a correlation between loneliness and people who regularly immerse themselves in social media. “(E)specially among millennials, the ever-present phone may in part be why.”

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And I recently read a book entitled The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. Harris discusses how social media—being able to wire in 24-7—is helping to increase social and political apathy and is reducing our capacity for quiet solitude (absence), which in turn reduces imagination, creativity, empathy, and an ability for sustained concentration (one reason, perhaps, why fewer people now read books).

I’ll add that these devices also cause marked deficiencies in vitamin N (nature), and an increase in bad manners, something I wrote about back in 2013 (click here).

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It doesn’t take a PhD in media technology to see all this. Just go to a restaurant, or walk through an airport, or visit the local park. Or glance at people driving down the road. (But if you’re driving, don’t glance too long). Our obsession with “wiring in” is, indeed, epidemic.

The problem, as I see it, is less about omnipresent digital technology than lack of self-control. Children, obviously, have yet to learn self-control, and it’s incumbent on parents and teachers to develop this ability. If you put a large bowl of M&Ms in front of a child, then leave the room, what do you think the child will do? If you give your teenager the TV remote, and let him watch whatever he wants whenever he wants, do you think he’ll view PBS Frontline for an hour and then hit the books? Hell, do many adults watch PBS??teens

(TV is one of the reasons my parents sent me to boarding school. I guess it never occurred to them to remove the TV and kick my ass outdoors.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to social media, parents and teachers are setting a terrible example for kids and teens. Not only are they unable to refrain from reaching for this digital chocolate, but many can’t even recognize how their kids and students are being doped.

Not long ago, a friend of mine expressed concern that his son was doing poorly in school. I asked him if the boy had a smartphone. “Yeah, I got him one a year ago. But all his friends have one.” The kid was only eleven.

(Then my friend interrupted our conversation because his iPhone rang.)

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One thing that really jumped out at me during the CBS Sunday Morning broadcast concerned Facebook. Boy wonder Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has to be the biggest Frankenstein monster worldwide. There are, undoubtedly, positives to Facebook. But as we’re becoming increasingly aware, there are just as many, if not more, negatives. And one of them is how Facebook, incongruously, actually contributes to loneliness.

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“How the hell does this person get so many Facebook friends?” is something I once asked myself. Aside from the reality that most Facebook connections aren’t really “friends,” or at least true friends, and that Facebook correspondence between these “friends” is primarily superficial, there’s also this observation by Dr. Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health:

“People are able to take 300-400 pictures of themselves and post that one that makes them look like they are that much more thin or that much more attractive or that much more successful. The impression from the outside can easily be, on social media, ‘Wow, I can’t measure up with my very normal life.’”

Ah yes, the ever-popular selfie (or “selfish-ie”). Loneliness? How about clinical depression?

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I’ve been accused of being anti-technology, including by members of my own family—all of whom, I might add (other than my 93-year-old mother), own iPhones. However, that’s an unfair accusation. I’m all for advances in responsible medical technology, which extend life and benefit health. In fact, I’m actually looking forward to my procedure next week to remove my prolapsed internal hemorrhoid.

I’m merely opposed to technology for its own sake, to the worship of technology, particularly leisure technology, by creators as well as end-users. And like I said above, it’s usually not about the technology, anyway. It’s about self-control. Too much technology and science, in irresponsible hands, and without self-control—as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made clear—can be dangerous.

And as author/environmentalist Edward Abbey also noted: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Or the hemorrhoid.

 

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Get Smart with Your Smartphone

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Last month I was in Wisconsin and had an interesting conversation with a graduate student about the weighty topic of technology and dehumanization.  We were sitting on opposite sides of a table.  After about five minutes, I dropped the name of movie director Stanley Kubrick (DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, etc.).  I noticed his head also dropped.  This happened several times later.  “Is my conversation that boring?” I thought, believing he was having trouble staying awake.  It turned out he wasn’t dozing: he was punching information into his smartphone, which I didn’t see because it was on his lap and hidden by the table.

He was a nice guy, and I give him credit for wanting to learn about Stanley Kubrick from Wikipedia.  But it was a little annoying having to talk to him without eye contact.  Similar things have happened other times with other people.

It wasn’t long ago we didn’t even have smartphones.  Even mobile telephones have only been around a couple decades.  Nowadays, though, we often look like an army of secret agent Maxwell Smarts with miniature shoephones up to our ears.

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I know I’m getting gray at the temples and cling to the past.  I’m also aware that we live in an age of instant communication, and I haven’t totally embraced it yet.  And I plead guilty to rudeness myself.  I once glanced at my cellphone during a meeting at work – I don’t always agree with my boss, but he was right when he admonished me to “Keep it in your pants.” (Sorry about that, Chief).

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But although digital technology has enormous societal benefits, like so many other things it’s also an excuse for silliness and sloth.  There’s a difference between using your phone to broadcast to the world a violent street scene, and texting “LOL” and “OMG” during a social occasion.  Advertisers like to push the idea of cells and smartphones as fashion accessories, but good manners are always fashionable.

I remember being in school when the dining hall monitor posted Amy Vanderbilt’s top ten rules of etiquette.  We made jokes about it because we thought he was acting like an old lady.  But he had a point.  Rules of dining etiquette may not mean much when you’re a self-obsessed teenage slob, like I was, but they become important when you have to socialize later in life.  It’s not so much about adapting or fitting in, but rather respecting yourself and others.

I feel the same way about I-phones, Blackberries, cell phones, I-pads… whatever.  Good manners never go out of style, but in the global village, they often seem to be going out the window.  You don’t have to answer every call or text immediately, or finish that game of Candy Crush, or check your Facebook page for updates every 20 minutes.  Unless it’s an emergency or something very important, keep the toy out of sight until you have some private time.

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This blog is just a hobby for me, but there are people who get paid to write what I’ve just written.  I checked out a few of their articles.  I’m not sure these paid professionals quite get it, either.  The first article I saw discussed “smartphone decency” and advised “Do schedule some offline time with your family.”  Really?!  Gee, what a novel idea!  To actually pull yourself away from your gadget and spend time with your loved ones!

Another writer discussed smartphone etiquette and dating.  She advised not using it on a first date.  I guess the inference was that, on subsequent dates, it’s ok to LOL and OMG and ignore your partner.

Like I said, these folks get paid for their writing, so maybe they know more than me.  I wonder if they know who Stanley Kubrick is.

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