A student of mine once used the phrase, “the world inside my phone”, to describe the allure of technology. Like gravity, it attracts us with its promise of stimulation, information, affirmation and control. Inside the phone, we can adjust what we see, who we friend, how things look, how we respond, and most importantly, how the world views us. It can be as compulsive as a very powerful drug.
There’s a subway station in Washington where big crowds are often waiting for trains late in the evening. Sometimes when I’m there I just want to shout, “Look up!” because it seems that the majority of people, whether they are alone or with others, are staring down at their phones, lost in that world.
I’m probably showing my age, but it troubles me to see this. One reason is physical safety – inattention on a crowded subway platform could lead to accidents, injury or becoming a victim of crime. But there’s also the issue of simple human interaction. Everyone laments those who ignore the actual people they’re with in favor of the device. What about the fact of our decreasing tolerance for interacting with anyone outside of our preferred group, whatever that might be?
Marc J. Dunkelman writes about this trend in his new book, The Vanishing Neighbor. He sees us losing relationships with those in our communities that he refers to as the “middle ring” – people who aren’t as close and familiar to us as family and friends, but are perhaps more than just acquaintances. In other words, people like our neighbors. We keep our inner ring close, and we pay attention to the distant outer ring via social media, but we often neglect the people living right next door, because we don’t have to acknowledge them or depend on them anymore. We can buy almost anything on-line, we can stare at our phones instead of making eye contact as we pass someone on the street, flip through our texts as we stand next to a co-worker in the elevator, maybe we don’t even order from a real person in a restaurant. We can keep all our interactions limited to people we deem to be like us. There’s an app that lets us decide where to shop based on politics. Another app steers us away from “sketchy” people and places. It’s all about control.
But there’s something lost by giving up the richness and randomness, and yes, even the danger, of everyday encounters: The chat with the neighbor in the street, saying hello to someone in an elevator, even arguing with the person who doesn’t agree with you. Of course it’s more comfortable to surround ourselves with the safe and familiar, the good and the beautiful. But just as Georges Braque said that “art is meant to disturb,” life should force us to question, to confront, to improve, to grow, to see inequity and injustice and be motivated to change it, to see suffering and hurt and want to end it. If we stay in the world inside our phones, what are we not seeing?
Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, that this digital immersion scares me. Eggers’ fictional Circle is a company that combines all social media, and more, under one roof. It’s as if Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and virtually every app were integrated and controlled by one organization. As the main character becomes more caught up in her job at the Circle, she ultimately sacrifices her family, her old friends, her privacy and her solitude because she so desperately wants to be a part of this far-reaching entity.
Our reality probably won’t mimic this fiction, but there are enough similarities already to give us pause. Before we become the tools of our tools (to paraphrase Thoreau), let’s not forget how to use the powerful apps we were born with. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Step outside the circle. Be surprised.