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My Turn: The smartphone as a social tool



For the Monitor
Saturday, July 15, 2017

For years I’ve been firmly in the camp of those who argue that to the degree technology distracts us from being “present” to those we are with, it’s a bad thing.

I disagree, however, that the inevitable result of technology is social disconnection or that it’s bad for conversation.

When social critics drag out the image of a couple ignoring each other while tapping on their smartphones in a restaurant, they are whacking a straw man. This typically illustrates the speaker’s discomfort with technology’s evolving role in our lives and unduly romanticizes what conversation was like before smartphones.

I encountered this trope most recently during a homily at a Sunday Mass. The deacon, a kind, wise fellow, was speaking on community as an aspect of love, as illustrated by the community of the Trinity. He pointed out our modern world was in danger of losing that essential community for which we’ve been designed. One of the culprits? Smartphones in restaurants.

“You walk into a restaurant,” he said sadly, “and half the people aren’t talking anymore, just looking down at their smartphones.”

Two questions occurred to me. One, is it true? Two, to the degree that it is, is it bad?

Before addressing these questions, I will point out I am not arguing for a culture of distraction. I keep most notifications shut off on my smartphone and clear most of my home screen so I’m not tempted into 20 minutes of Facebook browsing when all I wanted to do was check the weather. This comes per the recommendation of Tristan Harris and his Time Well Spent initiative. Harris’s group argues that app makers, who are currently using behavioral science and big data to make our tech more addictive, have a moral obligation to stop making Cookie Jam. (Okay, they don’t single out Cookie Jam, but seriously, stop sending me invites. I’m not going to play.) They don’t argue against technology itself, only that it should serve us, not the other way around. Watch the video, it’s brilliant.

If we’re out to dinner together, I’ll silence my ringer and keep my phone in my pocket. I’ll look at you – most of the time. That brings us back to the two questions.

Have you ever walked into a restaurant and seen half its diners looking at their phones? I never have. Not even close. A good number of people on phones? Sure. And for fogies like us who remember the days before smartphones, does it seem like a disproportionate number? Sure. But half is an overstatement, exaggeration for effect, or misperception.

If I acknowledge it’s rude to check my email, text messages or voicemail when I’ve made a commitment of time and attention to my dining companion, what possible excuse could I have for suggesting people ought to feel comfortable taking their smartphones out at dinner?

Your smartphone is not just a messaging device. It’s a part of your intellect, your memory, your augmented consciousness. This device, with its incredible processing power, memory, connectivity and even artificial intelligence, represents a step toward a transhumanist future. Transhumanism is a movement that believes technology will enhance human intellect and physiology, and strives to push that enhancement in beneficial directions.

This is already happening. Consider chess. You know who can beat a human in chess? A computer. You know who can beat a computer in chess? A human teamed with a computer. This hybrid player concept, known as a centaur, is an example of augmented human intellect. It also probably represents the future of work for most of us and certainly our children. Ignore at your peril.

Back to dinner. You’re telling me about the amazing trip you just went on. You take out your phone to show me pictures you took of the Painted Desert. Are either one of us distracted? On the contrary. You’ve just opened a window into your mind and memory, and brought me closer to the experience you’re trying to share than you likely could have otherwise.

But, grouses the curmudgeon, in our day we talked, used our words to describe these things. We didn’t have to rely on pictures.

Which is BS and you know it. How many of you old-timers were forced, for the price of dinner at a friend’s home, to sit through 4,000 grainy vacation slides? If your host could have lugged the projector to the restaurant, he would have.

Speaking of words, let’s say I’m trying to recall for you a beautiful poem I read earlier in the week, or an erudite passage from an op-ed column. If used in a deliberate way, this massive, near-infinite library at our fingertips is not a distraction. It’s a miracle.

Technology, used deliberately, clearly enhances human exchanges rather than diminishing them. Why then are we so concerned about each other’s tech habits at meals, on subway trains, in parks and airports?

We are misremembering the world before smartphones as one massive, sparkling community conversation. We forget the couple at the restaurant grimly poking at their soup, going the whole meal hardly saying a thing. We forget parents at breakfast tables tucked away behind morning newspapers while the kids read the backs of cereal boxes. People on subways and airplanes absorbed in novels, praying the person next to them wouldn’t turn out to be “a talker.”

One of the things that makes living in communities as dense as ours tolerable is our remarkable ability to ignore each other when appropriate and engage when appropriate. The smartphone enhances both of those skills.

Finally, back to the homily, the Trinity, the ultimate conversation.

I recall once, traveling alone on a hot day in Paris, waiting in line to get into Notre Dame Cathedral. My spirit soared, lifted into the great vaults and arches, drawn heavenward, craving conversation with the eternal, the creator.

I sat down before the great altar and felt moved to pray an old prayer, the Rosary. This is typically prayed with a string of beads. Not having one in my pocket, I took out my smartphone, launched my Laudate app, opened the interactive Rosary and commenced to conversing with the Almighty. And regardless of what some of my fellow pilgrims may have thought seeing me bent over my smartphone, it was an excellent conversation.

(Ernesto Burden is the vice president of digital for Newspapers of New England, the Monitor’s parent company. He lives in Manchester.)