This is a sad state of affairs that we’ve gotten ourselves into.
By “we”, I mean society.
Let me explain: a funny thing provoked me the other day. I went to lunch with four colleagues, where we proceeded to have a great, intellectually stimulating conversation. As we stood up to leave, an eery sense of silence blanketed the conversation. Master of small talk that I am, I chirped in to alleviate the awkwardness, only to find that I was the only one to find it jarring. Why? I was the only one actually there!
Nope, my colleagues hadn’t walked away from me, but they had abandoned me. For their phones. Almost immediately after our lunch (now remember, we all have to walk back to the same building together), they tuned out of the present situation and into their phones. I am making no judgments about them as people – they are wonderful, kind, friendly, smart people. But they are simply serving as a snapshot of what society has deemed an acceptable standard.
Then today, I was riding on the L. I was standing near a mother and her little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old. She looks up at me with these big, beautiful brown eyes of intrigue, and I couldn’t help but smile back at her. I’m telling you, we had a moment. Like any sensible 2 year old who makes eye contact with a stranger (albeit a friendly one), she begins to tug at her mom’s sleeve with both anxiety and excitement. “Mom, look at this lady! She’s smiling at me! But she’s a stranger! What do I do? Do I smile back?” Her mother continued to text away at her phone, with a rushed, “Honey, Mama is texting. Hang on.”
How do you ignore the opportunity to share this beautiful moment with your daughter? This creation of yours is looking to you for guidance! What are you teaching her about love? About people and connections? About technology?
Now, you may think I’m being too harsh. Maybe there was an emergency, and that mother really needed to be texting to figure out the situation. Maybe it was one of those hairsplitting days where you just simply fall behind and need those five minutes on the commute to catch up. I get the merit of phones in a work situation; a friend finally convinced me to get a smart phone when he mentioned all of the career opportunities that he attributed to his being able to respond to emails the fastest at a time when he was one of the first to have internet on his phone. I get it – the internet gives us several advantages in daily life.
But what are we giving up, in exchange for this convenience? Rich, meaningful connections? Our well-being? Are we purchasing unlimited data plans and asking for the social isolation option? Are we being forced to accept Timeline and a dose of loneliness as well?
I do research on this in graduate school. I’m sure most of the people in my program think I’m a crazy hippie who is completely against technology and few would expect that I would keep a blog (hence the title of this blog post.) I mean, in a way, am I not my own perfect subject, putting so much of my life online for the world to read, instead of confiding in my close others? (Although, to be fair, I definitely do still do that, and to a greater degree than anything that I’ll ever put here… sorry blogosphere.)
I think that I’m different (ha, but then again we all choose to see ourselves in a positive light), because I would never pass up the opportunity to interact with someone in real life for the opportunity to interact with someone on a computer screen (which brings up a whole different set of issues about how to maintain long – distance friendships, but that’s another post entirely that I don’t feel like delving into.) I’m of the mind that the internet is a great tool to keep us in touch with those that we love, but that ultimately you have to be where you are. That is, life is meant to be experienced first hand, not in some way that is mediated by a screen. There is something special about the present moment, and you can’t let that escape you.
See, I say all of this. But I’ve caught myself using my phone more and more. I had to fight the urge to pull out my own phone when my colleagues all left the lunch table with theirs, actively reminding myself, “No, Liz. This month’s rule is to be present.” I catch myself checking my email compulsively as soon as I wake up in the morning (is there no sanctuary anymore, not even my bed?) When my brain is fried at work, I hit the refresh button over and over again on my email, hoping for something new to magically appear to entertain me, instead of walking down the hall to say hello to an equally brain-fried friend. YUCK.
A while ago, I limited my Facebook use to 10 minutes each day (which is sadly still a lot of time – that’s 70 minutes each week; 60 hours each year. I use StayFocusd for Chrome – and they’re not even paying me to say that!) It’s one of the best things I could have done for myself; I’m trying to get my time down still. I’d like to imagine that I spend all of the time that I used to spend on Facebook engaged in more productive pursuits. Although I unfortunately lost my watch recently and the new one I ordered hasn’t come in yet (hence for the meanwhile, I am inevitably glued to my phone as a way to keep track of time), I promise that as soon as I can, I am going to turn my phone COMPLETELY OFF during the day, and only check it a few times in the evening. And those of you who interact with me in person, hold me to that!
No one likes discovering bad things about themselves. So far this month (and it’s only been a little over a week), I’ve realized that I’m a bit of a hypocrite. You can’t research how the internet relates to loneliness and relationship satisfaction and think you are immune to the effects. In trying to stay in the moment, I’ve been more cognizant of all the times that I haven’t been present, where I’ve had to actively tune back in. And given the appeal/ease of virtual communications, sometimes it’s been hard.
But you know what? So far, worth it. For that little girl’s smile, for the heightened smell of spring I got from walking in silence with my colleagues, for the feeling of closeness I felt when I chose to go over to my boyfriend’s apartment instead of proceeding to text him – all completely worth it.