My older daughter showed me a funny/sad video the other night called something like “I Forgot my Cell Phone.”
In it a young woman goes throughout her day meeting people who are immersed at looking at their smartphones, a half dozen people eating lunch with her but ignoring her while they focus on the screen, a child’s birthday party where all the adults snap photos of themselves with their phone cameras.
All through the video, no one says a word to her or to anyone else. I thought it was funny, an exaggeration, but my daughter said it was really not so far from the truth among her demographic.
I work on a college campus, and I see the hundreds of students walking past with their hands to their ears, or navigating blindly through crowds with their eyes on tiny screens, or weirdest of all, talking loudly to seemingly thin air about personal matters, as though nobody else really existed. You think they are delusional until you see the earbud wires dangling down to their hands-free phone.
I waste enough time online to know how seductive the great blizzard of electronic information can be.
Being connected is like being popular, part of the in-crowd. Being disconnected is like being on the outside looking in, the feeling we had back in middle school when some group ignored us.
When we are disconnected, everyone is moving past us, and we are falling further and further behind.
I was disconnected for a day when my internet connection failed earlier this week. It was painful.
My high school daughter couldn’t do parts of her homework, my wife had to postpone working on her school assignments, and my older daughter was disconnected from her friends, who seem to make plans only online.
I missed the political commentary I follow several times a day, and the climate change blogs, and the email ads that proliferate in my inbox. I admit I felt a little on edge, a bit disoriented as I sat down in front of the computer before remembering there was nothing to see there.
I picked up books I had been meaning to read and then set them down. Reading online somehow makes reading a serious print book less appealing.
My friend Tim, who was for a long while a news cameraman, used to talk about the distancing effect of looking at events through the lens of a video camera, as though what was happening on the other side of the lens, be it an auto accident or a riot, was not happening in the real world or in the present tense, as though he was disconnected emotionally and physically.
Sometimes our electronic connections are like that, disconnecting us from our sense of reality. But unless the entire World Wide Web is brought down by hackers or a solar flare melts down our electrical grid, we are probably destined to fall further and further down the electronic rabbit hole into the strange land of disembodied voices and Facebook friendships, and knowledge too fleeting to assimilate.
We are performing an experiment on ourselves, and especially on our children, a generational experiment as consequential as the one that had us sit in front of a box with black and white flickering images for hours every night and Saturday morning.
As far as I know, we still haven’t measured the results of that experiment, one that is still ongoing.
Television seemed to bring us together for awhile. Then it split us apart.
Smartphones seemed to connect us at first. Now we can’t live without them, but we’re only half alive.
Walt Mills can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875