By Dr. David Greenfield & David Ryan Polgar
Imagine two friends are sitting at a bar drinking a beer. Clanking their glasses together, they go about trading stories from their week. They laugh, argue politics, needle each other about their respective sports team, and occasionally have philosophical meanderings. It is a moment of joy and connection.
Now take those same two people and place the focus solely on the beer consumption. Instead of laughing, their attention has shifted primarily to drinking. Each frosty pint delivered by the bartender offers endless possibilities that slowly dissipate with each gulp. Despite their physical proximity of nearly touching, their engulfment in alcohol borders on loneliness. The scene is sad and desperate.
Alcohol, as most of us are aware, can often be a springboard to joy OR a pathway to misery. It is all about how you are using it (or, if it is using you). Smartphones deserve the same nuanced view. They can offer a tremendous source of personal connectivity that paradoxically leads to disconnection and alienation if, like the example above, they are abused.
There is a wonderful video that is making the rounds on the Internet called “I Forgot My Phone” that illustrates this point quite succinctly. The main character, without her phone, walks through a world with people obsessed with texting their whereabouts, recording special moments instead of feeling them, taking pictures of champagne flutes instead of enjoying it, and giving virtual friends status updates while ignoring actual friends. Lying in bed with her boyfriend, he seeks outside connection while being oblivious to the missed connection in his arms.
As the video makes clear, something is fundamentally changing about how we not only live life but how we view life. Are we living our life or are we observing our life? Somewhere along the line many of us have been experiencing what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock.” Present shock is our inability to bridge the gap between our online and offline identities. It’s a dissonance between being elsewhere and being in the present moment.
Our smartphones, if abused, can take us out of the present moment. For example, a concertgoer who takes out her smartphone to snap a few photos of the band is using the phone to supplement her experience. If, however, she keeps the phone out for the entire show to take pictures, videos, send tweets, and check-in, she becomes a viewer to her own experience. She would need to see her pictures, watch her videos, and read her tweets to later experience her own missed experience. She moves from being an active participant to a casual observer—in her own life.
Our fascination with real-time updates may be getting in the
way of our real-time living. Frankly, it seems more shocking in 2013 to see two
people engrossed in conversation than two people engrossed in their
smartphones. On one hand it can seem comical: two friends texting other friends
to update them about the wonderful time they are having. Their longing for
connection juxtaposed with their inability to actually connect beyond the
So next time you are sitting at the bar with your friend, keep the focus on the actual moment. If someone sends a text to ask you where you’re at, you can politely respond with a double entendre before putting your phone away—I’m here.
Overplugged is a joint project between Dr. David Greenfield and David Ryan Polgar. Dr. Greenfield is one of the world’s leading authorities on Internet and Cyber Psychology. Polgar is an attorney and college professor who focuses on the ethical, legal, sociological, and emotional effects of technology. He will be speaking October 18th at TEDxSpringfield. To learn more, please visit overplugged.org.
Clip of Dr. Greenfield and Polgar from a recent library event.