A series of photos have made the rounds recently on the social media and aggregation sites. Each one features a group of people on a train reading newspapers. Actually, everyone on the train has their head buried in a newspaper. The comment that accompanies (smugly) consists of something along the lines of “They totes said smartphones would make us antisocial!” (Or, “WE had newspapers to distract us before Obummer made the trains run on time!” if you’re over 50.)
Here’s a sample:
All this technology is making us antisocial. pic.twitter.com/k4j7lOSUeh
— Historical Pics (@HistoricalPics) December 15, 2013
The point being that the complaints about people refusing to lift their heads from their phones these days isn’t some new and terrible phenomenon. People have always looked to distract themselves. It’s just such a precious way to justify checking Twitter every two minutes.
Of course everyone distracts themselves during a trip. We’ve done it for centuries. Our earliest ancestors played on actual tablets (of stone) while traveling on their saber-toothed mastodons or whatever. The Bayeux Tapestry features a panel of William the Conqueror rocking out pretty hard to the Stones on his iMinstrel.
We even do it if we’re not traveling. I mean, I can’t count how many times I walked into a restaurant before the advent of smartphones and saw a table full of people with newspapers in front of their faces. Or maybe those were menus. Now, smartphones provide a more convenient way to pass the time when you have nothing else to do. But we’ve always looked to pass the time somehow, using the likes of music, books, and definitely not staring at that girl in front of me at Starbucks.
But let’s not go so far as to compare newspapers on trains to Instagramming your favorite artisanal salad from Urban… I don’t know, let’s say Urban Flannel Toms. The issue isn’t that smartphones make people any more antisocial than newspapers, Game Gears, or Walkmans did. It’s that you’d never just start playing your Game Gear in the middle of dinner with friends, though I guess that’s mainly because the batteries wouldn’t last through the appetizers.
You know who’s allowed to distract themselves during social engagements? Children. Because we don’t want to hear them during grown-up time, except for when they ask the blessing because that’s just precious.
People now seem desperate to escape from escapism. They no longer live in the moment. They half-live in the moments. Out with friends? See whether anyone else has texted or emailed you. Watching a game? See what Twitter has to say about it. On a date with me? Pretend an app just told you a family member caught fire and your house is sick and you’re sorry but you have to leave right now and also you’re moving out of the state.
As Nicholas Carr discusses in his book, The Shallows, we’ve returned to this hunter-gatherer attention span where the slightest movement distracts us. But now we’re actively looking to distract ourselves… despite being distracted already.
Here’s an experiment: Don’t check your phone for an entire movie or a quarter of a football game. Put it out of reach or in another room. Then count how many times you instinctively think about reaching for it.
And it’s not that compulsively connecting is some great cultural plague, necessarily. It’s just intellectually dishonest and lazy to conflate killing time with constantly checking who’s added you to their circle on Google+. Because the answer to that is no one.