A performance by the Blue Man Group of some years ago highlighted the trend – then burgeoning – of Internet cafes, wherein we ignore the people around us in order to talk to people who aren’t there. It’s a profound statement not because it was true, but because of what it predicted. We are more likely than ever to ignore the people around us in favor of “socializing” with people who aren’t present. You’ve seen this, too, if you haven’t taken part: entire tables of people in restaurants, ignoring their dining partners, heads bent over their smartphones as they update social media … to let their online friends know they’re dining out.
It’s a bizarre disconnect. We are more social now than ever before, more connected to our circles of friends than ever we have been. Yet when interacting in the flesh with those we call our friends, we’re constantly ignoring them to consult the little glowing boxes we carry in our pockets. Proximity has no bearing on priority in contemporary “socializing.” I may be standing in front of you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have someone across the country whose typed status update might be more important.
The rise of the smartphone has completely altered how first-world human beings interact and conduct their daily lives. Gene Roddenberry, of “Star Trek” fame, predicted the earliest flip-phones (I challenge you to find a child who can tell the difference between a Motorola Razr and an Original Series communicator). Many years later, one of his posthumously produced adventures (“Earth: Final Conflict”) described a near-future world in which everyone carried an all-purpose recording, data-transfer and video-capable “global” phone. These were smartphones before we knew what smartphones were supposed to be.
The technology will only become more prevalent. Chipmaker ARM has promised a “twenty dollar smartphone” by summer, of which Tech Times’ Judy Mottl says, “The industry implication, especially in emerging countries where cell phones are primary telecom communication devices, could prove thunderous in terms of Internet traffic, website shopping and data traffic on social networks that were once off limits to millions and millions of cellphone users in the U.S. and around the world. …[R]esearch reports in the past year have indicated that not only are cheaper devices wanted in the market, [but] the consumer demand for mobile apps is growing exponentially, and phones that offer cheap access to apps can’t be bad for developers, telecoms and mobile device makers who are facing off in one of the most competitive tech markets to date.”
As the phones become more common, so will their worst effects. Specifically, the phenomenon of the “smartphone zombie” will only grow. You’ve seen this. Chances are you’ve done this. Smartphone zombies are those people who walk, stand, or sit with their heads forever bowed, buried in their phones to the exclusion of the world around them.
A disturbing photo essay highlighted in the Daily Mail proclaims, “Why we never look up any more: Photos capture the way mobile phones have changed the way we interact with the world around us.” Larisa Brown writes, “Society has become fixated by a hand-held device that has transformed the way we communicate, enabling us to send instant messages, photographs, audio recordings and videos to friends and family across the globe.”
Our obsession is hurting us. Smartphones are a nightmare of ergonomics. For best results, you ought to be reading your smartphone at a comfortable distance from your head, just below your eye line. In reality, none of us does that. We stare downward with our heads at uncomfortable angles that produce stress and strain over time. Katy Winter reports that in the U.K., clinics are seeing a rise in patients worried that their smartphones are giving them neck wrinkles.
S. Terry Canale, a doctor affiliated with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, called the United States “A Nation in Motion Looking Down.” He writes, “I have noticed … people in meetings who are looking down. Most of them are checking their smart phones, which they hold beneath the table, thinking no one can see them. I was recently at a meeting where more than half of the participants were looking down below the table at their smart phones – texting, emailing, checking out YouTube videos. Unfortunately, I was the speaker! … It’s hard to walk down the sidewalk or through a department store without bumping into someone who’s looking down while texting.”
What’s worse, a new study in the journal Pediatrics reports that parents, distracted by their electronic devices, are risking the well-being of their children. “The researchers surreptitiously watched 55 caregivers, usually a parent, eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants around the Boston area,” reports NBC News. “Of the 55, 40 used a mobile device during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal.” Conversations were, understandably, stifled. Children responded with “escalating bids for attention.” While the study is not comprehensive and cannot tell us about how those children and their parents interact at home, researchers are asking “how parent distraction and device interruption may affect the development of subtler skills in children, such as empathy and ability to read the vocal, eye and facial cues of others.”
There is, however, hope. A spoken-word film on YouTube titled “Look Up” has garnered millions of views. In it, filmmaker Gary Turk highlights the irony of today’s smartphone-connected, Facebook-facilitated “friendships,” wherein one can have hundreds of “friends,” yet live isolated and alone. Just the words, “look up,” carry a powerful message to which all smartphone users can relate.
We MUST look up. We must stop ignoring the world, our children, our friends and reality itself in favor of the pixelated simulacra delivered by our handheld devices. Cultural and technological trends possessing this type of momentum do not stop overnight. They rarely end except of their own volition, when users voluntarily lose interest (or forsake one trend for the next new thing). All of us, though, can embrace this particular departure from the smartphone’s cultural dominance.
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