These kids are probably having an awesome time. Photo via Flickr user Taco Ekkel
You’ve likely already seen I Forgot My Phone, the short film by Charlene deGuzman that dramatizes our dependence on smartphones. It’s pulled in almost 20 million views and counting thanks to that magic social-media formula of saying something everyone pretty much agrees with: we're all hopelessly and pathetically addicted to our devices, which makes us tragically unaware of the fragile beauty of real-life moments passing us by on gossamer butterfly wings of authenticity.
The message at the heart of the film is yet another argument that technology erodes our genuine relationships and makes us stupider and less empathetic. You’ve likely heard a variation of this before—cell phones, or the internet, or computers, or television, are making things worse. As usual, it’s wrong.
Granted, smartphone abuse is a real thing—according to one study, 72 percent of Americans said they’re within five feet of their mobile devices at all times, and 9 percent said they used their phone during sex. In another survey, 51 percent of UK residents said they experience “extreme tech anxiety” when they’re separated from their phones. And common activities like texting or using social media trigger our brains’ dopamine and opioid receptors in much the same way narcotics do, meaning you can really be “addicted” to Facebook. But while it's certainly reasonable to argue that we should draw the line somewhere—tweeting while driving is clearly dangerous, for instance—it's not clear where that line should be.
Consider some familiar scenarios, some of which crop up in deGuzman's film: you're at a concert, or a restaurant, or a sporting event, and you take your phone out to take a photo or a video or send out a Tweet or Facebook status. OH NO YOU ARE MISSING OUT ON THE WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE OF BEING WITH OTHER HUMANS!
Yeah, right—have you met most people? They’re boring as shit. More likely, you are avoiding an awkward or boring conversation by checking your phone, or you’re communicating with those you’d actually like to talk to. Before smartphones, people dealt with these situations by drinking too much, pretending to be interested in someone, or just staring at the clock until the party was over. We’re not missing much if we duck into our phones instead.
Phones have eliminated distance as an obstacle to communication—why should we obey the outdated convention of talking to people who happen to be in our meatspace if we don’t want to? Wouldn't my time watching a football game or eating a meal be better shared with people in my network who I know are likely to appreciate it? Do you know anything about this band we’re listening to? No? OK, well, I’m going to briefly chat with people who do appreciate them, sorry if that ruins your precious fucking IRL-only life.
Oh no, your life of yoga on mountaintops and hanging out with people who don't like each other or you is ruined by phones!
The entire world, the sum total of human history and knowledge, is available to us on our phones—is it weird or awful that we sometimes decide to explore it when we’re at the beach or a party? Borges's Library of Babel (look it up on your phone) is resting there on the bar while you listen to your friend ramble on about some guy he's sorta-dating who doesn't listen to him, and the rude thing is to glance at that magical device? Social convention is lagging behind technology as usual, but that doesn’t mean that limiting ourselves to talking to only those within pit-smelling distance is innately better.
I'm sure the feeling is often mutual—occassionally I’ll be a boring asshole who is telling you a story centered around someone favoriting instead of retweeting a joke. Ignore me! Take out your phone and see what’s happening in Syria right now, sext your friend, check your fantasy football scores, do anything you want. You can, after all, do pretty much anything on your phone.
If you really want to dissuade your friends and family from staring at their phones all night, here's a suggestion: be more interesting.
Apart from a few true addicts who can’t stop glancing at their unchanged Facebook timelines, if something truly grabs our attention, we don’t think about our devices in our pockets or purses. We’re not going to click away from a heart-to-heart conversation, or an amazing band’s live set, or, sure, the sun setting over the mountains, if that’s what thrills us. But just as consumers are no longer stuck reading and watching content from a few meagre sources as they were in the bad old days of traditional media, people are no longer limited to interacting with just the world in front of them.
That’s a good thing, especially if you’re someone who creates art of any kind and wants people to see it. Mobile users are responsible for 40 percent of YouTube’s traffic, meaning I Forgot My Phone has likely been viewed millions of times by people using evil smartphones, many of whom got inspired to share it with their friends and discuss it. They might have been staring at their phones’ screens for a few minutes, but that’s OK—they probably weren’t missing anything.
More stuff about the information superhighway: