I was in a bar last week with a bunch of friends and something made me to look up from my iPhone for a second. What I saw kind of bummed me out. Everybody under 30 was staring at their phones. Hot person sitting right across from you? Eh. Instagram’s better. Bachelor party for your homie? Better Facebook that shit! And by ‘Facebook that shit,’ I mean sit around in a quiet circle with 10 other people telling everybody who’s not there how much fun you are having. I tried have a real-life conversation with some of the people there, but gave up when when they kept checking their phone mid-sentence, probably to see if anybody had liked their new status about a really deep conversation they were having with some attractive guy named Austin at this great bar they just checked in at.
And we’ve all been there. Go to a concert or restaurant or the park or a rodeo, and look around. You’ll get bummed out. I promise that most people will either be staring at their phones or showing something on their phone to somebody else. And that’s just not how humans are supposed to act. Humans are supposed to have conversations with one another. They are supposed to look at the world, take it in, and deal with it. They are supposed to experience things and feel things and create things, not just read about them. I want to get better at this. At the same time, I really like my iPhone and my Facebook profile and neither of those are going anywhere any time soon.
In the interest of trying to not be a robot and also not Amish, here are 3 tips for being human and owning a smartphone.
Take all the pictures you want, post them when you get home.
Let’s face it. Some parts of our lives are awesome. Also, sharing that awesome with friends makes those things more awesome. Fine. But don’t get so caught up in capturing and sharing the awesome that you miss experiencing the awesome, or ruin the experience for somebody else (guy standing in front of me at a concert holding up your phone in front of my face to take a new picture every two minutes, I’m talking to you — FYI, THEY ALL TURN OUT THE SAME). Be a human, snap a shot or two, and put your phone back in your pocket. Post it when you’re home, alone, eating ice cream on your couch, looking for something to do.
When there is someone to talk to, talk.
I was in a coffee shop this morning. It was a neighborhood coffee shop, about as big as my bedroom. There were two employees and me, and one of them was in the back making my drink. The other guy was standing next to me. He was a little weird and hadn’t introduced himself, just standing there scrolling through Facebook on his phone. And there was also my phone, in my pocket. It was calling to me. Burning. “Use me,” it said. “This is boring, and homeboy in the corner clearly isn’t interested in conversation.” But I ignored it and turned him, determined to win this battle. “So…you work here?” I asked. “Yeah”, he said. And bent back down, squinting at his screen.
After this, I remembered a text I had to send and spent the next two minutes reading Politico headlines. But I felt a little more human and a little more connected to Barista #2 while I was reading those headlines, because I tried. When there is another human in the room, make an attempt to talk to them before turning to your phone. Facebook will be there five minutes later. And maybe you’ll meet someone cool. Who knows.
Your phone/computer is a tool. Use it like one.
When I am bored at home sitting on my couch, I don’t pick up a screwdriver and stare at it. When I’m waiting for a friend to show up at a restaurant, I don’t pull a stapler out of my pocket to pass the time. These things are tools, and I only use them when I need them. I get a screwdriver when I need to screw something in or kill an ant or something, and I use my stapler when I need to staple papers or my thumb.
Technology is great and smartphones are amazing tools. We literally have the entire internet (which pretty much equates to everything that matters in the world) at our fingertips, anywhere we go. But because of this, it’s easy for our phones to morph from powerful tools into black holes, taking our attention away from the world we actually live in and pushing towards an endless stream of cat videos, inflammatory opinions, and boring information about the lives of people we kind of know, or met one time three years ago.
I understand that shooting birds at pigs or stalking your ex-girlfriend is much more fun than staring at a wall or avoiding eye contact with the non-ironically mustachioed stranger sitting across from you, but it comes at a cost. When we use our phones as social crutches, we are actively removing ourselves the from real world that we actually exist in, and desensitizing ourselves to the things that make real life real. Pull your phone out of your pocket when you need to do something specific, and then put it back once you’ve done that thing.
There is no magic formula for this, and maybe I’m just a 70 year old man in a 24-year-old’s body. My quickly-receding hairline seems to think so. Maybe I’m crazy. But I doubt it. I don’t look up from my iPhone screen very often, but when I do, I’m startled and can’t help feeling that we’re all kind of missing out on something. That there’s a big world full of life and cool stuff happening out there, and I only get to see 50% of it because I’m so obsessed with avoiding or reporting or passing the time. Maybe not obsessed, maybe addicted. And maybe thinking about it in these terms will help.