I witnessed something disconcerting at the dining hall last Thursday.
My university’s dining hall resembles the Great Hall from the Harry Potter series (with a few minor differences: instead of magical floating candles, we have a replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper presiding above the dinnertime chaos). Like Harry’s dining hall, our ceiling is high, our windows are gothic, and our long tables are arranged in rows.
The layout of our dining hall also lends itself to people watching. So last Thursday, I watched a group of 12 girls enter the dining hall together with trays in hand. They chatted and smiled as they made their way across the spacious hall; one laughed. I watched them sit in twelve seats along a single rectangular table, and then watched them pull out 12 nearly identical smartphones.
Bemused, I watched as these friends spent an entire meal with faces illuminated by tiny glowing screens.
“It’s a little scary,” my friend Olivia noted, motioning to the table with her spoon, “how they’re barely talking to each other.”
I nodded, thinking of futuristic movies. Of Wall-E, the wonderful Pixar animation that imagined future humans communicating remotely, through video screens and microphone headsets, devoid of any face to face conversations. And of beautiful Joaquin Phoenix in Her, portraying a man who had fallen in love with a computer operating system in a world where passerby speak more to their cell phones than to one another.
Those movies are set in the future, but sometimes I worry about my present generation, and about myself.
For me at least, there are times when checking my phone feels like an embarrassing sort of social crutch. When I’m standing somewhere and feeling awkward (which happens more often than I’d like to admit), or when I’m in that uncomfortable position of waiting for a friend to meet me in a public space, I gaze into my phone as though the answer to some great human mystery might be hidden in its Emoji keyboard. I separate myself from the outside world in the hopes that I’ll blend into its background.
When I used to work as a street canvasser, collecting signatures for the ACLU on crowded city sidewalks, cellphones were the first yardstick that passerby used to distance themselves from me. Seeing me, with my aggressive clipboard and bright pamphlets on LGBTQ rights, they would whip out a phone and begin texting furiously. I never approached these people; they were existing in a world disconnected from my own, a world of data roaming and WiFi bars, a world detached from my reality of bright sun and cracked sidewalk.
I’ve seen toddlers enter this separate world, the jarring juxtaposition of grubby little fingers against smooth touch screen surfaces. I’ve seen toddlers take selfies expertly, flipping the camera button on a phone with a bored flick of the finger.
Often, I notice myself noticing phones when I travel. Meeting strangers is one of my absolute favorite parts of life, and traveling provides some of the best opportunities for this. On the slow train rides between Tennessee and Indiana, I have met so many fascinating strangers: a nun who believes in mutual assured destruction, a single dad who wants to learn French but just can’t find the time, a union welder who has read every Dean Koontz book in print (as of 2012). The train I take on this trip, with its lack of WiFi service and electrical outlets, fosters a kind of community: We’re all on this giant, mobile, metal thing, hurtling towards a similar destination. We’re all saving our phone batteries in case of an emergency. We might as well talk to each other.
But when I took the exciting bus from D.C. to Boston last summer? The bus that promised Internet connection and phone charging stations? I was surrounded by the incessant pings of incoming text notifications. So I took my phone out and listened to music.
Phones, these incredible devices that hold so much potential to create connections between humans through exchanges, too often create distance.
I wonder what Alexander Graham Bell would have thought of that. I imagine a mixture of pride and uncertainty spreading across his mustached face at the way his invention has grown and changed.
I remember reading about Sub-Saharan Africa, the fastest growing mobile technology market, home of the “Smartphone Revolution” and about India, where more people have access to cell phones than they do to toilets. There are countless exciting studies on the possibilities for economic development and improved education that smartphones present in developing countries, but I worry about the way they might change basic human interactions. I worry about the new form of escapism they might breed, creating portals to the mobile broadband world while diminishing shared, personal experiences.
Back in the dining hall, I watched the smartphone girls and thought about Harry Potter. Did Hogwarts ban cell phones? Did Professor Snape ever catch students sending some not-so-discreet texts from under the table in Potions class and send them off to detention? Or were the magical adventures of Harry’s world so captivating that the distraction of Instagram simply wasn’t necessary?
Maybe we don’t have house elves or hippogriffs, but I think our world is magical. I’m trying to spend more time really living in it.