September 24, 2013
I just started subscribing to the New York Times. I’ve always considered subscribing to the paper a very grown-up thing to do. I remember when my best friend, G, started getting the paper a few years back. I didn’t have much interest in current events back then, but Graham did, and I did admire the interest. It showed that he cared about the world around him, that he knew he wasn’t the only game in town.
So now I’m subscribing, and I have to admit, I like the feeling. Mornings are reserved for reading the paper, and in the few weeks that I’ve been getting it, my knowledge of world events has grown by leaps and bounds. There’s always something interesting in there, whether it’s politics, culture, or lifestyle.
Just last week I read a pair of articles, one about the new Google Glass, and the other about a YouTube video called “I Forgot My Phone.” It got me thinking about how we connect with our mobile devices and how that connection dictates, and in some ways limits, the amount of information that we consume and how we interact with other people.
The video “I Forgot My Phone” follows a girl throughout her day, and, in every scene, someone is staring down into their phone. It starts with the girl in bed with her boyfriend, who holds her with one arm and holds his iPhone in front of his face with the other. Everywhere the girl goes, the people she surrounds herself with are always on their phones.
While the video is heartbreaking in a way (when was the last time you sat through an entire meal without you or your companions checking your phones?), there are funny bits. A particular favorite is when the girl passes a couple, the man proposing to his girlfriend while trying to capture the proposal with his phone. The other is at a midnight bowling alley, all black lights and neon whites. The girl bowls a strike and turns around, triumphant, jumping with her arms in the air; only no one saw the strike, and everyone has a lit-up phone under their face.
The video is less an exaggeration of the truth than a magnification of it. We are becoming more attached to our devices than ever, but everyone has limits. The article goes on to compare the current smartphone obsession to the TV set craze of the 1950s. The technology was new back then, just as smartphone tech is new now (isn’t it crazy to think that iPhones have only been around for six years?). Back in the 50s, there was a point when people would wheel their TV into the dining room during dinnertime, and back into the living room afterwards. And then, one day, it became rude to watch TV during dinnertime. Is it possible, then, that one day soon the etiquette will evolve, and checking your phone every five minutes will become the equivalent of coughing without covering your mouth?
Maybe. And I don’t think that would be such a bad thing. Smartphones are fantastic tools, and, yes, there is an app out there for almost everything. But in an effort to please us, these apps often limit the amount of information available to us by limiting our choices. To app and web developers, this could be seen as customization. Want an example? Take a look at your Amazon homepage. The suggestions that Amazon gives you under “New For You” as well as all the Recommendations (books, electronics, etc.) are based on prior purchases. That’s convenient, if you want more of what you already know you like, but doesn’t give you much of a chance to explore new fields. Same goes for Netflix. If you watch French films, Netflix will suggest more French films. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid user of both Netflix and Amazon.com, but I can’t help but see the suggestions they offer as a bit narrow. And that, ultimately, is the catch about smartphones. All the information possible, but a narrower field of view.
Some people wouldn’t call a smartphone wearable tech, but when was the last time you forgot yours? Our phones are attached to us as much as the shirts we wear. Then there’s the next step in tech, Google Glass. Not having tried on a pair, I can’t say much. But I can say one thing. As cool as Google Glass seems, I think there’s a good chance that Glass, and products like it, may be the straws that tip the scale in favor of scaling back tech-love. It’s one thing when the person you’re with stares at their phone during a meal; it’s another thing altogether when they are looking at you, or rather seem to be looking at you, and are actually taking a picture or Googling directions.
Honestly, I don’t know what to think. What I do know is that after reading those articles and some of the first reviews of Google Glass, I’ve been making a conscious effort to keep my phone in my pocket. I’m making progress, I think. The only time in the last week I’ve pulled out my phone when spending time with my friends is when I got an update from the New York Times about the mayoral election in New York. See, it’s a digital subscription.
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