Can you get by without your phone? - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

9 May 2012

Children can’t concentrate these days. Children? It’s the adults who are the problem. If someone sits and listens to you tell a story for more than 10 minutes without checking the email on their BlackBerry or quickly replying to that text from Aunt Maud on their iPhone, it can only mean one thing – they were recently robbed of their telephonic hardware.

You could be detailing the most revealing or tragic story or even be telling your best friend that you’ve got a cancerous lump and the best you can hope for is a “Sorry, I missed that, you say you have a bad humour?”

Our modern inability to focus has been well-documented but what’s most intriguing is that it’s not age-related. I should know, I am that man.

Now, I am at a company where we are kind of on call most of the time and in a way that I am very happy about – correspondent in trouble? I’d like to know. Tokyo office needs a response? Sure, I’m there. But I am also the person who finds their BlackBerry an itch that just needs to be scratched. I look before I go to sleep. If I wake up in the night and see it flashing its little red light I’ll be tempted to see what’s occurring. Tempted? I lie. I’ll look.

I find it hard to leave my phone in my pocket when I’m at lunch. I recently left my phone in a hotel room when I went to dinner and I felt uncomfortable; something was wrong. I switch it on as soon as my plane has landed – none of this waiting to arrive at the gate nonsense.

Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT, has written a book, Alone Together, that looks at how technology is changing the ways we relate to each other and create our inner lives. Much of the book investigates the impact on children but she also details how adults use their phones and technology to create false closeness and by default, an aching distance.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Turkle explained how technology allowed us to disengage at will, helped us to avoid conversation when things got too uncomfortable or just dull. Her piece ended, “I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices.”

It’s a vision we have all been part of, unfortunately. I’d like to change; well, I think I would. A couple of people close to me have tried interventions but I have beaten off their sect-crushing ways.

Yet I watch people on trains unable to look up and see the passing mountains, or the friends at dinner who are there it seems to keep sending messages to Facebook acquaintances, or the lovers who miss the flicker in their partner’s eyes and I see a bit of me. It’s not very pretty.

However, if you have managed to stay focused for the past 500 words, congratulations, you are a rare and special person. Indeed one of a dying breed.

“What’s that? What did that guy just say? What’s a lying weed?”


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