Matt got an iPhone a few years ago – about the same time everyone else did – and I remember one of the first days very clearly.
We took John, thoroughly wrapped in fleece and his favorite red hat, up to the tennis courts with a ball. One bounce and he was off – he would chase a ball until he was asleep on his feet. Being fully entranced by John and even slightly obsessed (as I still am), I considered this the height of entertainment. I looked over to catch Matt’s eye so we could agree on the adorableness of a teetering toddler, but he was checking to see if he had internet access at the courts.
And that was that. The beginning of smart phones as I know them. The advent of instantly available information, entertainment and social connection from just about anywhere.
There are some great things about having a phone with you. Take a picture or a video, preserve a memory, send a reminder, set an alarm, call for help, play a game, waste the last five minutes before your plane takes off. Professionally, there are obvious benefits to staying connected and responding quickly. But in my mind, a smart phone spends more time acting as a barrier between people than as a bridge.
If you’re alone and on your phone: more power to you. Get after that last crazy pig. If you’re with people and on your phone: there’s no faster way to indicate that you have zero interest in anything that those people have to say, and that you can’t be bothered to say anything either. It’s the digital equivalent of holding a open newspaper in front of your face, and the fact that the phone is smaller than a newspaper doesn’t make the social signal any less clear. And by the way, if you’re not using your phone but it’s always sitting right next to you, I think that’s a clear sign that you’re looking for a better deal. Like being at a party and looking over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to, hoping someone more interesting will come along. It’s rude.
(Obviously there are exceptions. At dinner yesterday my friends and I couldn’t remember the name of a spy movie with Chris Cooper. Two people grabbed phones and looked it up, which was great, because we would have spent the rest of the meal agonizing over it. Then they put their phones away.)
I really think it’s a question of manners. And most of us (I’m including myself here) could use some better ones in this area. I’d propose the following guidelines:
1) If you’re alone: do whatever you want.
2) If you’re with people: don’t use your phone unless you’re using it for something that has to do with those people. (Photos, for example…)
3) If you’re with people and you can’t possibly resist a look at Twitter or Facebook or stock prices or your email: excuse yourself, walk away, do what you must, and come back. Briefly leaving the room seems far less rude to me than ignoring people who are right in front of you.
But honestly, the internet is not going to collapse without our constant vigilance. Most news/posts/tweets/updates can wait. There’s so little time with friends and loved ones to begin with. When we get that time, let’s just leave the damn phones by the door.