I’m a member of a growing group — those people that judge people who use their iPhones and similar mobile devices at social occasions. Recently I confessed to a group of friends that I was a part of this group, and suggested we needed a name. Someone (I forget who — please identify yourself in the comments), threw out the term iHaters. I think it’s going to stick.
iHaters, like myself, project a holier-than-thou attitude if you deign to check your email, or friends’ Facebook statuses, while you’re at my house eating my cheese and drinking my whisky. We’re an annoying group, sadly shaking our heads (the expression is meant to convey a combination of disgust and pity) while you suckle from your digital teat, your zombified face aglow from the little screen. We’re part of the same general group who has insisted, over the ages, that television rots your brain, that sugar rots your teeth, and that marijuana rots your memory. We’re probably right, too, but that’s not the point. The point is, we’re better than you.
As an iHater with a modicum of self-awareness, I decided to question my own belief that going to party to read your email, or taking a call to have a conversation when you’re already engaged in a conversation, is bad. Maybe I’m right, but maybe I’m just that old Gen-X geezer shouting “Get off my lawn,” refusing to give up my fax machine, and insisting that people should pay for music they download from the internets.
I’m old enough to have witnessed no small number of cultural trends that I’m resistant to. Some are stupid (pants so baggy they impede normal movement) and some, in my view, are cool (young men wearing hats). Sometimes I get on board, sometimes not. At first I thought Twitter was idiotic, now I tweet and like it. My point is that I don’t hate everything new, at least not forever. But the whole walking-around-while-staring-at-your-phone thing … I just don’t get it.
Internet in your brain, now that I’d be down with, especially if it came with an artificial intelligence augmentation that allowed you to operate multiple threads of awareness and processing in a fully parallel mode. Like Data on Star Trek — you’re having a conversation with him and he’s also modeling warp drive modification simulations and researching Klingon opera singers. But his brain is so fast, with fully parallel streams, that you don’t notice. He’s right there with you. Most people can’t do that, at least not very well.
I’ve heard the argument that texting with friends or posting status updates is an inclusive activity, a digital glue that keeps the social circle together. Poor Lars, he’s at home in bed with a cracked fibula, but at least he can see what a fabulous time we’re having.
That’s what status updates are really for — they’re a digital “Hey, look at me!” I’m traveling in Europe. I’m eating pie in a pie shop. Digitally posting something (especially with pictures) gives it weight and clear boundaries, an act of framing. Sometimes this elevates the banal (drinking a cup of coffee), other times in trivializes the important (telling — perhaps unintentionally — the most minor of acquaintances that you just got engaged, or broke up).
Status updates are fun to read if you need a two-minute break. Oh look, so-and-so is in Bali — it looks warm and mosquitoey there. Hey look, you-know-who finally got a job — good for them. It’s mildly entertaining and it helps us feel in the know. It only becomes a problem when the posting and checking of updates becomes an involuntary compulsion … that’s when you get the iZombies at a party.
Oh wait, you say you weren’t even on Facebook? You were just checking work email? Whatever man.
Maybe phones, these days, are kind of like cars were in the Fifties. It was new for everyone to have a car, and cars gave people (especially teenagers) a new kind of personal freedom. For the first time, you could drive wherever you wanted to drive. Cars were a new kind of personal space. Your car defined your personality. You could do stuff in your car, like eat, or watch movies, or have sex. Why leave your car, ever?
Over the years people have become less enamored with cars. Americans still love their cars, but drive-in movies, drive-in burger joints, giant back seats conducive to comfortable sex — those things have gone by the wayside. For most people, a car is just a way to get around. The car you drive (or not driving a car) can still be used to indicate your social status or political/ecological views, but the car is no longer the all-consuming center of modern life. The phone is.
When I was growing up, a phone was something that attached to a wall with a cord, that you used to call people. These days, phones can still be used to call people (though not as easily or effectively), but they are also expected to function as entertainment centers, encyclopedias of all knowledge, dating support service providers, compasses, levels, GPS devices, scanners, cameras, video cameras, typewriters, faxes, computers, and personal security devices (I made the last one up, but there’s gotta be an app for that). No wonder people are interfacing with their devices all the time, they do everything. But will it last?
As an iHater, I hope the phone goes the way of the car, and we collectively start obsessing about something else, like flight shoes, or universal translator chips, or DNA remodeling. If phone-obsessiveness faded, at some point staring at your phone while at a social event might become equivalent to taking out an iron and starting to iron a pile of shirts. Dude, why are you ironing at this party?
I’ll leave you with two of my favorite phone-related clips.