Our Smartphone World: Nobody’s Got Anybody’s Undivided Attention

phoneIt’s strange to reflect on a time before smartphones were a thing. Even harder to fathom is the fact it was just a decade ago.

That’s the extent to which they’ve become a part of most of our minute-by-minute lives in 2015.

Devices are a double-edged sword. They help us be more informed and connected than ever, but when we use them, we interact with digital avatars, not real people. And when our eyes are glued to them in public settings, we miss out on what’s happening around us. For better or worse, we become brains in a vat of pixels rather than people integrated and interacting with a world of flesh-and-blood organisms.

Combine that observation with how much information can be gathered about you from your digital presence these days, and, as my dad loves to say, “Nobody’s got anybody’s [attention] but everybody’s got somebody’s [information].”

Aristotle taught that virtue consists in finding the “golden mean” between two opposed courses of action. It’s a lesson that I’ve found applies in my own life with regard to how much time I spend looking at screens. My dad, who has never checked email in his life and never will, falls at one end of the spectrum, while folks like me who sometimes have a hard time putting our smartphones away are at the other.

What follows is a brief history of how I came to arguably have too much of a good thing when it comes to screentime.

— Dawn of the AOL Age —

I watched a good deal of TV as a kid, but watching the tube in a family setting and browsing the internet on a personal computer are two different types of activities — the former is usually social, the latter individual.

We first got AOL at my parents’ house circa early 1998, when I was in my early teenage years. At the time, I was primarily excited to get online so I could read all the online wrestling dirt sheets, as the internet was home to communities of “smart” wrestling fans who discussed the business in the “insider” vernacular you’d never find in magazines on newsstands.

It didn’t take too long, however, before I discovered AOL Instant Messenger. Shortly thereafter I got into the habit of spending some quality screentime almost every evening gossiping with my classmates.

Not too much changed over the next decade or so. The internet was a significant part of my life, but not an overwhelming one. Checking email became part of the routine in college, but the net was still something I could only access from certain fixed places — my desk, the school library, and so forth. That scarcity was a limiting factor in terms of how much time I spent on it.

I didn’t get a cell phone until I was 22 and done with college, as Hamline provided a landline for all of us living in the dorms (shoutout to all my friends who lent me their cell phones at parties back then!). Once I finally got one, I quickly fell in love with texting, but I used it functionally, not compulsively.

That all began to change with the advent of the iPod Touch.

— The Internet Goes Mobile —

I believe I got an iPod Touch as a gift for Christmas in 2008. In hindsight it was somewhat akin to a gateway drug.

The Touch was revolutionary in that it made the internet handheld, liberating it from the constraints of the fixed places I mentioned earlier. Now you could check email or browse the net wherever there happened to be a wifi connection.

You no longer had to lug around a laptop, and push notifications meant that emails sought you out, not the other way around. That, in turn, led to me reaching in my pocket, pulling out my device, and looking at a screen more often.

But the real game changer, of course, came with the advent of the smartphone era. I got my first one in August 2010, just before I started my first full-time job in journalism down in lovely Faribault, Minnesota. It was a first generation Samsung Galaxy and I remember being amazed at the sheer amount of stuff you could do on a device that comfortably fit in a pants pocket.

Even more so than with the Touch, smartphones and cellular data made it possible to access the internet just about anywhere. This meant there was less excuse than ever for not being on top of emails and other notifications, which added to the pressure to constantly be looking at your device.

Now, I don’t mean to portray myself as an innocent victim of these technological and sociological forces. I often read books on my phone by choice — mainly because of convenience and portability — and other things I could in theory do without the aid of a screen, like catch up on the latest in the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press, I choose to do on my phone or laptop.

But there have been times where my phone has seemed to have a gravitational pull on my hands and eyeballs. Especially when I was writing for City Pages, the damn thing seemed to vibrate just every every 30 seconds, informing me of an email, reader comment, Twitter notification, or something else that probably wasn’t as urgent as I thought it was.

It’d be hard to resist reaching in my pocket and taking a gander, but at the same time, I’d observe others who seemed to feel the same pull and be struck by the seeming disrespect involved in hanging out with someone and spending more time paying attention to a phone than to human company.

So at a certain point I started getting in the habit of putting my phone on mute in social situations. Even though I knew the emails and notifications were piling up, not being alerted to each of them nonetheless resulted in me pulling it out less and being more invested in what’s going on around me in actual physical space. To each their own, but I viewed and continue to view that as a net positive, even if I find out about Adrian Peterson’s latest Twitter rant 15 minutes later than everybody else.

Still — between my phone and the time I spend at my computer for work and at home writing stuff like this and tooling around on the internet, I no doubt spend more than half my waking hours staring at electronic screens. That’s a lot. More than I would like, in fact, but I’m certainly not alone in that respect, and it probably beats making a living mining coal or something.

Perhaps it’s the Libra in me, but I find the notion that virtue resides in moderation and balance to be intuitively compelling, even if it can be hard to attain with regard to screentime for those of us who work in the digital realm. Muting your devices when you’re not on the clock helps, as does making a point of regularly doing things without having your phone on you, but disconnecting for any significant length of time is tough when being connected is part of your job.

At the very least I’ve found it helpful to be aware of my habits and cognizant that none of the richest experiences I’ve had in my life have happened when I’ve had a screen in my face. And hey, even if that isn’t incentive enough for you, think of it like this — odds are the notifications on your phone are piling up while you aren’t looking at it, and everybody enjoys feeling like their attention is in demand, right?

Incentives of that sort certainly wouldn’t have been compelling for Aristotle, but then again, he was concerned with virtuous behavior, not his number of Twitter followers. The world we live in is a very different one, even compared to the not-long-ago era when a dial-up connection was needed to get on the net. Now, we can get there from our watches.

Digital devices are certainly here to stay, and that’s not a bad thing by any means — unless you find yourself in a situation where you’re hanging out with a friend who seems more interested in their Twitter feed than you. In that situation, you might be doing them a favor by instigating a conversation about Aristotle’s theory of the good.

Image credit — Manny Valdes on Flickr

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