Three friends sitting around a brunch table, palming iPhones. Toddlers on the floor, fully engrossed in an iPad game. A couple of off-duty New York City cops, learning over a fence, each with phones in hand, thumbing the news. A woman in full burka, shielding the face of her device from the sun with a gloved hand, scrutinizing an incoming text.
None of these scenes are particularly exotic. We see them on streets, on buses, airplanes, in restaurants and movie theaters in every city in the world. The ambient state of a lone person—waiting in a café, in line for the bathroom—has seamlessly transformed into this ubiquitous figure: hunched slightly, in iPhone contrapposto, hand in a claw around the plane of the screen. Pinkie as anchor, thumb as stylus. Swiping, scrolling, tapping.
We have to stop.
Or, because we won't and it's pointless to even ask, we may as well follow @WE_HAVE_TO_STOP, an Instagram account devoted solely to images like the scenes detailed above, portraits of the total ubiquity and grossness of our smartphone usage, as a reminder. No single image is particularly damning; cumulatively, however, they document a world whose steady lean on the small faces of the Internet has developed into a handicap. A crutch.
"I wonder if someone was in a coma for 15 years," explains Matthew Daniel Siskin, the account's keeper, "and they popped back up and looked around, they might think we've all been stolen by aliens and replaced with something else. I just feel like calling attention to it is the responsibility of every living artist or maker."
Siskin is a creative director, the founder of a studio called designedmemory, responsible for—among other high-profile web projects—Beyoncé's internet presence, which arches beyond her website to Tumblr, Twitter, and her entire presentation of self online. His studio advertises a desire to engage with voices "eager to connect" in our "strange age of sharing and oversharing." Which is to say he's not a neo-Luddite or a tech reactionary in the slightest—just someone whose business it is to be conscious of these things.
How do we point out a very real, very problematic state of being, without being invalidated by our peers, who are all on their phones all the time, just as we are? Nobody wants to come off as a reactionary, least of all Siskin, who says he relies on his phone to connect in very human ways to the people he loves. It's not the tools that @WE_HAVE_TO_STOP are trying to critique, but the senseless disconnection they can enable. Not the tools, but how we use them.
A list of offenses of which we are all frequently guilty, according to Siskin:
when there's nothing to say, look at your phone.
when you feel awkward in a group, look at your phone.
when you're in an elevator, look at your phone.
when you've ordered lunch and you're sitting quietly with your mom - look at your phone.
when you're walking to work, look at your phone.
when you're home, with absolutely nothing to do - look at your phone.
when you're waiting to board an airplane - look at your phone.
it goes on, and on, and on, and on.
Instagram, and other feed-based social network apps, with their infinite scrolls and pleas for likes, are the primary perpetrators of the passive kind of smartphone absorption that @WE_HAVE_TO_STOP illustrates. Which is to say, many of the people in the pictures are likely looking at their Instagram feed—perhaps even, like me, at @WE_HAVE_TO_STOP itself.
In that way, @WE_HAVE_TO_STOP is compellingly self-aware. The medium is right: looking at images on your phone of people looking at images on their phones has a tang of brain-breaking irony that verges on the inevitable. And there's no shortage of irony, either, in the fact that man who makes his living acquiring page views for a pop star, rigging the machine that keeps us looking, is the one imploring us to look up from our phones.
"If you want to get a message across," explains Siskin, "do it in the language everyone speaks."
And it's true—it is a language everyone speaks. The images conjure recognition, shame, but also, in a strange way, community. New York City cops, toddlers, brunch hipsters, and a woman in a burka all have at least one thing in common. Many of the images are submitted by the perpetrators, as tiny interventions for themselves or their friends. Nobody is exempt.
"I'll have to post a photo of myself on my phone sooner or later," Siskin admits.