It won’t be long before all we need to do is hold up a palm and swipe our skin to make calls and access Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the other social networks.
Considering just how much of an extension of the mind and body smartphones and tablets have become, it’s the next logical step for technology.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy these devices and benefit as much as the next person.
Work is no longer location dependent, international communication is instant and we are seemingly plugged into everything and everyone the world over.
But on the other hand it’s socially challenging, and in many ways negatively changing the way we communicate. We see less of the world because we live inside a screen, constantly walking around head down, fixated and anticipating the next digital interaction.
Many people struggle to get through a conversation without checking their phone halfway through or holding onto it in one hand as if they can’t wait for you to stop talking and get back to the other world.
And another world it is.
For all their technological blessings, these devices seem to be pulling us further apart.
Rather than make a personal call, our conversations are strung out over Whatsapp or other instant messaging networks. Instead of relaxing over lunch or dinner, we are nagged by thoughts of whether we have any emails or messages to reply to.
Twitter has become a real-time soap opera that we can’t bear to miss being a part of, and Facebook has become an addictive window into a world of self (ie)-obsession, pointless information, viral videos and, now we are hooked in, another arena for brands to market to us.
I am not preaching here. I am guilty too. I am not anti social networks or smartphones.
I am very much a part of this revolution. But I am conscious of it’s pitfalls too.
- In the past I have put off meeting people and opted for a Skype call instead because I’m “so busy”, opting for cold efficiency over the reward of real human interaction.
- I’ve checked my phone at the dinner table (with my family) while anticipating an important email.
- I’ve taken whole train journeys with my head buried in the BBC news app.
- I’ve unconsciously taken my phone out of my pocket during a conversation, only to think, “Wow, why have I just taken that out of my pocket. How rude”!
But from what I have seen, I am only mild offender. A couple of recent incidents prompted me to write this post and think about just how attached we’ve become to digital communication, and how it is detrimentally replacing natural communication.
For example, just recently at a restaurant, a couple opposite my wife and I were watching a film on an iPad while eating, sharing one earbud each of the headphones. No talking. Even the waitress had a hard time getting their attention.
The other day there were two school kids on the train. One was so engrossed in her phone that when her friend got off and said goodbye she didn’t realise until the doors had closed and her friend was long gone. That really was quite something.
A close friend recently expressed to me how lucky she was not to get run over as she stepped out to cross the road. The crowd she was crossing with had stepped out but then stopped as a car zoomed around the corner and sped past. My friend had stepped out but looked down at her phone and kept on walking when the others had stopped. It was a near, lucky escape as someone pulled her back.
This huge cloud of distraction we are living under really hit home when out with a friend for lunch last week. We were there to discuss some work, yet I could tell that even though he was there at the table, he really wasn’t fully present and his thoughts were elsewhere. His “hmmms” and vacant eyes told me he wasn’t really listening and was obviously distracted.
My “Are you with me” tone quickly brought his attention back from the phone in his hand, and he proceeded to explain that his girlfriend was messaging him. She was disgruntled about one thing or another. Could he not tell her it was rude for him to text back and forth during lunch with a friend and that he’d contact her after? Or is this just acceptable social behaviour now?
We carried on talking but he kept intermittently checking his phone. I found this pretty annoying because it was like talking to a brick wall. It was pointless. His mind was elsewhere. I remember thinking that if I don’t say something I’ll only be annoyed later down the line when he comes back and asks me to discuss something I covered when he wasn’t listening.
So I said, “Hey, if you need to go home and talk to her it’s no problem, we can catch up any time”. I was blunt but polite. He realised I was less than impressed and said, ” No, no, it’s okay. I’ll tell her we’ll speak when I get home”.
It’s rude when a person constantly plays with their phone in your company, because it gives you the feeling they’d rather be somewhere else. But it’s quite common to see two people having a coffee, phones in hand, barely saying a word to each other but smiling and tapping away. They might as well be sat alone.
The bigger question for me is beyond simple bad manners. It begs the question of what’s so appealing about constantly being inside a digital bubble and why this form of communication is preferable to real human interaction. When I look at groups of school kids with their heads buried in phones, it makes me wonder, if we keep progressing as we are, will the virtual world become a genetically predisposed preference to the physical in generations to come?
If it’s not SMS or email, then it’s Facebook or Twitter, Whatsapp, Angry Birds or idle Googling. More than 20,000 apps are released to the Apple Store each week. The digital distractions keep coming, as we become increasingly attached to our handheld friends.
“Get over it Alfred. This is the new world. Accept the transition”.
I am the first to say that change is inevitable and we must accept impermanence and flow with its tide. But this attachment and dependence on something we don’t really need to use as much as we do is blocking our requirement for something we do, and that is natural unadulterated human interaction: the state of being fully present and aware when talking, laughing, being affectionate or simply being quiet among other human beings.
Instead we are becoming zombie-like, waiting for the next bleep or flash of red light to emit from a device that fuels our desire to tap away, check someone’s profile or aimlessly scroll for something of interest. There is an unhealthy addiction to plug a constant hole of desire for something interesting to emerge from the screen.
So, how about this for a mindfulness exercise: For one day each week over the next month, try having a phone-free, tablet-free and if possible computer-free day. This doesn’t mean you can’t carry your phone around, but make the following changes to your routine:
- Keep your phone in your pocket and turn off social notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, etc.
- Do not access any apps or social media platforms.
- Do not get your phone out and put it on the table when meeting friends, or hold it in your hand when speaking to people.
- Turn your phone off when at home with your family.
- Treat your phone solely as an emergency method of communication.
- Do not use your tablet at all for the entire day.
What will I do instead?
I’m taking my day off from the digital dizziness to notice all the things going on around me that I miss when my mind is buried in data bytes.
At times I fill the void by just being here, not doing anything really. Believe me, this is quite challenging. Try it. If a person wants to talk to me then they have my full, undivided attention. If I’m on the train and start thinking about checking the news on my phone I’ll divert my attention by playing the ‘see how long you can balance without holding onto the hand rail’ game.
Release your mind from the chains of digital interaction for a day. It feels good, and you mind will thank you for it. Enjoy your friends and family, people watch a bit, get out amongst nature and notice the world at with full awareness for a day.
At first it will feel like something is missing, but as the day unfolds you will find something of greater importance that you have been missing for a long time. Mental spaciousness.