Friday, November 22, 2013

the corrosion we love

I don't have a smart phone and now I wonder if I ever will.  Can it be that all this--this that 21st century American life has become--all dates back only to June 2007?  The iPhone and all the competitors are even younger than Facebook.

And it's obvious that we now simply can not do without them.  Smart phones dominate my students' lives.  Every element of campus life now involves them:  classes (yes, during--and unless a campus features a particularly tightly-woven culture, find me somewhere smart phones are not used in class), dining, commuting, in-between classes, sporting events.  They are omnipresent.

This blog and all other blogs function, to some degree, because of this.  Blog updates and other little tidbits come in, thus connecting the smart-phone-user to all corners of the world s/he has chosen.  Smart phones are no longer primarily for talking but for connecting:  information, texting (the primary and preferred communication avenue these days), social media, entertainment, directions, reminders, games, photography, etc.

And yet it should be equally clear that this omnipresence is quickly and surely corroding the ways in which we interact with one another.  Notice the story:  device-free meetings, Japanese commuters falling in front of trains, discussions among urban planners of technology-free-spaces.  Simon Grabar writes:

Broadly speaking, any such regulations would require agreement that public computing has negative externalities — that your hand-held device is my problem. ...

But while it is obvious that light, noise and smoke corrupt darkness, silence and clean air, the consequences of smartphone use are far more opaque. What, exactly, does the man texting at the bar disrupt? Is the situation different if he is watching a violent movie or playing a visually arresting game? What does it mean to fellow patrons if his face is bathed in the steady glow of an e-book?

In the past, it has taken decades to pinpoint the external costs of other people’s activities. Though smoking was often considered a bother in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the aggravated parties coined the expression “secondhand smoke.” (All this far before any awareness of its health risks.)

It seems clear that there is such a thing as secondhand glow. It impedes our movement on busy sidewalks, breaks our concentration in movie theaters and libraries, and makes our public places as dull and private as phone booths. The question is what to do about it.

"that your hand-held device is my problem"...whoa, boy, there's a ticking bomb.  It is--when somebody's driving--but Grabar attends to the larger social "web" that is dissolving in our midst.  Somebody once told me that Steve Jobs' biography reads like somebody who suffered from fetal alcohol effect (FAE):  difficulty in bonding with others, stuck in his own world.  Maybe--Jobs is a compelling figure in so many ways.  Yet Jobs, not ironically, created a device that now invites/coerces us all to enter a world similar to his.  Each day I face a room of undergraduates who sit together but apart from each other, each deeply involved in her/his social media world--world that they themselves have.  They're more than willing to look up anything I mention in class:  Google image searches of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, movie updates, political commentary, Facebook memes, etc. 

That being said, I get the attraction.  The functionality, the connectivity, the instantaneous ability to comment.  This blog surfaces occasionally on Twitter where I stand amazed at the constant roll of updated tweets.  At a recent parish council meeting I stressed the need for the parish to join, in some way, that very world.  Social media is "where" the younger generations reside that churches want to attract.  And evangelization, especially the New Evangelization declared by John Paul II and Benedict XVI--and taken to a new level by Francis I--advocates going to meet the people "where they are."  The American Academy of Religion's annual meeting features--which convenes this weekend in Baltimore--roughly eight to ten thousand of the nation's top religious studies scholars, and, despite the AAR's membership self-satisfied sense of objectivity and critical remove from religious subjects themselves, the AAR is no different. The annual meeting consists of the usual lengthy (and, yes, fruitful) sessions on a wide variety of religious phenomena--but now the hallways and book displays are clogged with the AAR members on their phones--just like everybody else as Grabar describes.  

And he concludes with the right note:  "what to do about it?"  Where will this technological cum social transformation take us all?  Because it's clear by now we're all on this smart phone train--but do we really want to end up where this journey is headed?

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