I’ve been puzzling for some time over my increasingly visceral aversion to folks face-planted in their phones and tablets. It’s not merely their often being stumblebums clogging hallways, corridors, sidewalks, and elevators with rank inattention to traffic flows, though that public nuisance has been jangling my nerves to a startling degree. The answer, I was surprised to discover when I began reading Matthew Crawford’s highly regarded book The World Beyond Your Head, is my sense that those staring unwaveringly at their screens are in effect denying sociability in the most ordinary of ways by failing to acknowledge my presence with a nod or even eye contact. This is most surprising to me because I used to eschew common social graces (a couple decades ago) but have revised my thinking through recognition that, as social creatures, we take cues from each other ranging from inconsequential to life and death. None should be discarded. Even though I don’t expect soul-felt validation of my very person in day-to-day interactions, the notable absence of any acknowledgement whatsoever feels less passively neutral, more aggressively hostile. Indeed, I’ve heard stories of people wearing earbuds (without being jacked into anything) precisely to forestall anyone striking up a conversation. I call that protective headgear.

Crawford describes a familiar scene: travelers in an airport gate lounge zoned maniacally into one type of screen or another, some handheld, others mounted overhead, but in either case oblivious to each other in what might have been a social milieu in the day before electronic gadgetry and TVs (e.g., a train depot). Social conduct even in the traditional liquor bar is difficult to maintain when so many screens commandeer one’s attention. Blanket disregard for each other is understandable to Crawford because we now face so many arbitrary demands on our attention (e.g., advertising everywhere, now even on the trays the TSA uses at security checkpoints) that the response is often to cocoon oneself away from the world. Thus, according to Crawford, “we engage less than we once did in everyday activities that structure our attention.” His antidote to living in our heads, transfixed by representations of reality (as opposed to actuality), is to develop skilled practices that focus and refine attention. This is his subject in his previous book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I have not read. Thus, to be more authentically human, or to be “a powerful, independent mind working at full song,” is to be situated within “narrow and highly structured patterns of attention” that require bodily engagement and submission to constraints that remove the faux freedom of choice.

Here I must pause to register my dismay that Crawford fails to acknowledge Albert Borgmann and his description of focal practices. Many philosophers and their ideas are cited in the book so far (I’m up to p. 95), but to omit Borgmann is an egregious error someone should have caught. I also find it astonishing that Crawford quite clearly speaks my language and makes many of the same points I have been making here at The Spiral Staircase, though with far greater detail and thoroughness as book form requires. However, the language is often clunky and reads too much like a psychology text (which is why I stopped reading books by Robert Putnam — and Albert Borgmann — partway through). I will read to the end of The World Beyond Your Head, but I won’t turn it into a book blogging project since it’s so close to the things I already write about.

So what’s one to do in the presence of others who are steadfastly disengaged from everyone else? I recall last month stepping onto an elevator with maybe five others on the way home from work where no one had yet face-planted into a phone. We all looked at each other briefly, relaxed, not in that awkward elevator way, when inevitably one fellow dove into his pocket and produced a phone. I blurted out without exercising my usual self-editing restraint, “So you’re the one who just had to whip out his pacifier.” Luckily, it came across as a joke and everyone laughed, but I think my intent was really sanction. I resist the pull of electronics as much as I can (I have a cell phone but no data line), but I recognize that though I may be swimming upstream, I cannot redirect the flow of everyone’s attention already inexorably fixed onto personal screens. Storms along the eastern seaboard last week knocked out power for many for a few hours. No doubt some (re)discovered what it means to be with their families (or alone with their own thoughts) without electronic mediation. Do they look dumbly at each other and say “What now?” (as was reported to me) or be sociable?

  1. It’s not any different than people who used to read books on trains, planes and in restaurants. The difference is the internet talks back to you so you are even MORE engaged and social than when you are reading a book. I agree it does not belong at the dinner or conference table, but most people who object to social media either don’t know how to use it (and that is NOT an age thing; it’s a fear of change thing) or people who demand total attention and those kinds of people are too needy to deal with anyway. I find it keeps my mind alert and engaged. I don’t hang out looking at bad jokes and childish videos though. I’m a news junkie and information-a-holic.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment, Edie. Funny you say “used to read …” with respect to books. Literacy rates support that blank statement. However, I can’t agree that there are no differences between media or that all forms of engagement are equivalent. I’ve never used a book as an impenetrable barrier the way screens and earbuds are now used (albeit often unintentionally). YMMV. Further, it’s nothing so simple as fear of change, though I would offer that reckless embrace of change, entering uncharted territory, is worthy of some caution and circumspection and lacking with technophiles. Rather, it’s that surrogate and/or mediated engagement is qualitatively different from meatworld. Nearly everything I’ve read (lots of media theory and psych reports) indicates that you’re not getting out of electronics what you may think you are. What you are getting may be hyperpalatable, easy, convenient, and ubiquitous, but Crawford insists those are entirely the wrong values.

    • Philip says:

      “most people who object to social media either don’t know how to use it (and that is NOT an age thing; it’s a fear of change thing) or people who demand total attention and those kinds of people are too needy to deal with anyway.”

      Wow! Binary thinking in all it’s glory. This should be on the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT as a logic question.

      Guess all those many, many, many people walking down the streets of NYC their heads looking down into their gadget expecting me to move out of the way for them (a former technology expert who knows more about those piece of heroin than they do) know that I refuse to move because I have a fear of change. It couldn’t be because they are rude, impolite, and narcissistic. I did at first, but don’t and won’t anymore. I scream “passing on the right” (as I do when cycling) and see the stunned look of annoyance on their faces as I smile politely passing by.

      However I wonder if my gym ought to come up with a class where people can practice walking the streets as if it were one of those driving tests with the cones. We could even call it “Walking the Streets.”

  2. As the reader comment indicates, people are engaged, often on these devices. But the quality of that engagement deserves to be scrutinized. At a recent gathering of family I was stunned by how many, while talking, were looking at and sharing third-party bits and pieces. Unlike the elevator, where conversation is usually minimal, the family table should be a time for direct interaction. I’d hate to think that my nephews or nieces might conjure up a family memory that consists of “Aunt Kathy showing me that cute cat video.”

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