First we had cordless phones, then we had mobile phones, then we had cell phones, and now we have smart phones. They are triumphs of technical genius. It seems like almost everyone past age ten has one. I am many decades past ten and I do not have one, nor do I want one. I have a pay as you go cell phone which works fine for me. After all, all I want it to do is ring and find someone on the other end saying “hello”. The key word here is “phone.” In fact, I get mad when my cell phone rings.
Perhaps the biggest understatement in recent times is that smart phones are intrusive. They have taken over our lives. We no longer drive them and their technology. They drive us. We can be accessed anytime, anywhere, 24-7. They are vacuums, sucking every thought out of us and getting it out there on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and countless other social media sites. But I beg to differ. I believe these are ANTI-social sites.
Smart phone users have now become voyeuristic. That is, they write in annoying texting shorthand and then wait like a player at a Vegas slot machine hoping for three cherries, glued to their phones waiting for some texted reply to pop up on their screens. You look at their eyes and these folks have a combination of the 1,000 yard stare mixed with a look of vapid emptiness as they await the next gem or contemplate their own next gem to be sent out, oblivious to anything else going on around them in real life and time.
You’ve probably all seen YouTube videos of people walking into fountains or even falling onto subway tracks because they were so engrossed in what was on their tiny screens that they lost complete touch with their environment. Not funny. Just plain scary.
It is now a common site to see a young couple dining in a restaurant, each with their phones on the table, not speaking to each other, but rather staring at their smart phones or texting someone else. They can text others but have no time to speak with each other. And if they do talk to each other it is of short duration, kind of like oral Twitter—143 characters and they’re done.
The other day I saw a family of five sitting in a restaurant and each one had a smart phone on the tabletop and all of them were busy flipping screens or texting. My wife and I watched them all through our meal. They rarely spoke to each other. And when they did it was never for long. These oral Tweets were short and never seemed to involve everyone else at the table, as would regular conversation. When their meal was over, they all got up, faces still buried in their phones and left. They could have been five strangers. Most likely, they were.
When you look around at the world, there is so much violence and so much disconnect between people. As a retired teacher, my teacher friends and I agree that it is harder and harder to engage these children. Kids today are not used to communicating face to face, with their peers, their parents, or others beyond their circle of friends for extended periods of time. One of my friends just retired from teaching. He was an English teacher. Wow, what a Sisyphus job that had to be—push the boulder laboriously up the hill and when you almost reach the top, it tumbles and rolls back. So you start over again, doomed to repeat the cycle forever. He said he knew it was time to hang up his red pencil when he started receiving research papers filled with texting shorthand. These kids actually thought that this was acceptable in a thoughtful research paper or composition?
Is it no wonder that kids today have a lot of difficulty solving word problems? Is it not surprising that people today also have huge difficulties with conflict resolution? Is it not surprising that people today have difficulty with understanding complex topics that can’t be reduced to either a text on a smart phone or reduced to 143 characters in a Tweet? No wonder tempers are so quickly flared and all to often violence erupts where once two people would and could talk it out.
Recently I watched a news piece on TV dealing with texting. In the course of the piece, a boy of about ten was asked why he preferred texting instead of talking. His response was quite insightful. He said, “I’d rather text because it’s short and it’s not like real time where you have to talk to someone right then and your can’t control the conversation.” To him it is like DVR’ring a conversation to be played back at one’s convenience.
A few years ago I was at a large family gathering. We were playing a game like Pictionary, and two of the teenagers were sitting side by side yet texting each other. It left me speechless. Don’t get me wrong. I am no curmudgeon. I like technology as well as the next person. And I fully realize that today’s smart phone users have a wealth of information available at their fingertips. But that is not really accurate. There is more data available, not information. You see, data can be defined as unorganized information, but information should be defined as organized data. That is, data, which has been transformed into useful information through synthesis, context, content, and purpose—the exact skills that have withered with the reliance on texting and Tweeting
Colleges and some high schools have run experiments in which the subjects pledged to give up their cell phones—and thus texting, Facebooking, and Tweeting—for a week. Most failed. Even those tasked with giving it up for a mere 24 hours quit the experiment over 70 percent of the time. They said it was just too stressful. I guess stress is in the head of the beholder.
Yes, they call them smart phones. But I suspect the real smart ones are the ones who sell them.