This year I spent my Labor Day weekend in Santa Cruz, CA in an attempt to relax, soak up some sun, and be disconnected from the world for a few days. In general, it worked pretty well. I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t check Twitter (I cheated on this maybe twice), and would try and refrain from taking and posting too many photos (which I posted a total of two). Instead, I chose to be more introspective and started using an app called Day One, but more on that in a later post.
Some of my time was spent wandering around Santa Cruz’s small downtown area, walking along the beach, the boardwalk, and sitting by the pool. Because I made the conscious decision to use my phone only for reference purposes, like checking Foursquare Explore or Yelp ratings for places, my head was up and facing the world most of the weekend. It was through this time that I made an observation that should have been obvious but somehow surprised me in the moment:
Text on the beach
Image by Krizzia Kaye
Everywhere I walked, I noticed more than a handful of people staring at their phones and not looking around. They were at the dinner table, eating, and dug into their phone. They were at the pool soaking up some sun, but hunched over their mobile device. They were on the beach, not looking at the gorgeous scenery, not conversing with the people around them, not experiencing that moment, but instead mesmerized by their handheld computer. At night they were in restaurants and bars hypnotized by the white-blue glow of their phone.
I wanted desperately to go up to them, snatch the phone out of their hand and yell at them to see the world around them. Experience. Watch. Enjoy. But instead they were checking their Facebook feeds to see what their friends from afar were doing on their Labor Day. They were looking at their Instagram to see the food that their friends were eating. They were playing Angry Birds (ok I don’t have a clever Labor Day reference there). It bugged me to no end that here we were on the edge of a continent, enjoying the beautiful weather and gorgeous scenery and there were an alarming number of people just entirely disconnected from the situation.
As I was waking up on Sunday, I was doing my typical morning routine of rummaging through some of my news feeds and came across this fantastic article by Jason Hreha entitled “When did addiction become a good thing?.” I immediately posted one quote that resonated with me). But as I ruminated on the idea a little bit more, I realized even more truth in his statements.
If none of us ever had to work, I think that our activities would cluster into three areas: art, interpersonal interaction and discovery (science, academic research, curiosity). While this is a much longer discussion, I worry that our community is aiming to make technology and content consumption our primary activity, instead of helping us engage in these creative and personal endeavors.
This idea fascinates me and the more I paid attention this weekend to peoples behaviors, it was becoming evident that (sadly) he might be right. Back in the early days of social networking, I felt like the various sites really helped me connect better with the people around me. When I was in high school, I used instant messaging not as a replacement for communication, but to augment my conversations when I simply wasn’t around those people. I posted photos of my life because I wanted to log them, not because I cared how many likes that I got. But the biggest difference between then and now was that most of this activity lived on my computer.
'Social media' is making us less social
The more we stay attached to our social networks today, the more I believe we’re disconnecting from the real world. I’ve been guilty many, many times of being at a dinner where every single person spends the first 5-10 minutes checking in on Foursquare, taking a picture of the location on Instagram, reading their Twitter feed, checking their Facebook notifications, and then their email for good measure. Without saying anything at all, we’ve said to each other that we’re more interested in the world going on elsewhere than those that we’re with, even though that might not consciously be the case.
It’s only getting worse too. Every day there’s some new app that’s all about posting things, consuming things, and encouraging addictive behavior that intends to suck you in, pulling you away from the world. It’s Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram and Angry Birds etc etc etc. As we keep playing into this behavior we’re becoming less present with those that may be near us in social situations. It’s like some big lie to ourselves that we’re networking socially with those of us far away but somehow barely “there” in the moment.
To combat this behavior, lately I’ve been encouraging a “phone stack” policy at many of the dinners I’ve attended. This consists of taking all of the phones at the table and placing them in a stack, face down. The beauty of this is that any one of those phones may vibrate, but because they’re in a stack no one can identify which one it was. To make it even more fun sometimes we add the rule that whoever reaches for their phone first is the one that must pay for the meal. Unfortunately I’ve been guilty of this at least once.
What happens after the phone stack has been instituted feels nothing short of blissfully refreshing to me. We converse. We dine. We share in an intimate moment of social interactivity unhindered by the world around us. It’s funny how dinners used to be such a mundane thing for me, but now they’re almost a mini-escape from social media for me these days. I don’t care as much about checking in where I’m at, or taking a picture of the food that I’m eating. I care about the people I’m with and the conversation we’re having. I care about the moment, and that’s special.
The sad reality is that I think that it’s only going to get worse from here, at least for some time. The closer we get to a mobile-phone focused society, the more we’re going to disconnect from the real world. And I fear that the addition of wearable computing like Google Glass it’s only going to be worse. We’ll be looking at each other, but entirely consumed by the little blips of text now being delivered directly to our eyes. We’ll be there, but we’ll be gone.
I, for one, hope that something else happens. I want everyone to wake up and realize what they’re missing. To wake up and not immediately check their various notifications. To eat meals with their friends and loved ones and not care about what else is going on in their network. To relax on a sandy beach and take in the beauty around them. To me these aren’t selfish requests. This is the world that I’d rather live in. One where people slow down and enjoy what’s real. One that people connect again, for real this time.
Pixelated connectedness be damned.