Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Phoning It In

Hey, Kelly, I just got the coolest new phone. I'm so rad.
No, I am not writing this blog post using only the tiny keypad on my smartphone. That would be madness.

However, like many people today, I do use my phone for the majority of my online interactions, including Facebook posts and e-mail. Although it is a "phone", I rarely use it for actually speaking with anyone, and since I don't want my R2D2 ringtone to go off unexpectedly at work or during a church sermon, the ringer is typically off. I rarely even use it for texting. I don't take "selfies".  For me, it's merely a small tablet, a way to access the internet at any hour of the day. I may never be able to mentally download Kung Fu or how to pilot a B-212 helicopter like in The Matrix, but being able to get just about any information at any time is pretty awesome. Besides, I'm pretty sure a Matrix-style download would be outside my Verizon data plan.

There are legitimate concerns dealing with cell phone use in public. Surely, if someone is in line at a fast food restaurant or at he bank, it should be turned off before getting up to the counter. There are numerous public service announcements about the dangers of texting and driving, as well as the embarrassment quite likely to come from sharing questionable photos (right, Anthony Weiner?). Like any object, a smartphone can be misused. There are cases in which using a phone could be considered rude, but I, for one, think the phone backlash has gone a little too far.

There are a number of memes, posts, and other criticisms all over the internet about how people should stop using their cell phones (so much). The irony, of course, is that these are often read and shared via a smartphone - just there are thousands of posts on Facebook complaining about Facebook. This sort of finger-pointing is easy; we can assume the post is about that guy or girl over there using their phone, not us. The truth is that we all have erred at some point; we have all been at least perceived to be that jerk by someone who was waiting for us to do something else. Still, I don't think that increased use of phones/tiny computers is necessarily a bad thing.

Recently, a friend shared a viral post by an anonymous poster who claimed to be a restaurant owner in New York, about an unnamed restaurant, who hired an unnamed firm to help them look into complaints about their service. Of course, this "study" was only published on the "Rants and Raves" section of Craigslist. While it appears to be a hoax, it spread like wildfire. People were happy to have some sort of quantified "proof" that (other) people using their phones were destroying our society, starting with restaurants. Some excerpts from the post:
7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, they showed them something on their phone and spent an average of 5 minutes of the waiter's time...
26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food...
27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving....

The post concludes that the average guest time in 2004 (from being seated to leaving) was just about an hour, and that in 2014 it had almost doubled (nearly two hours) - yet their establishment is busier than it was in 2004. I'm not sure how that is mathematically possible, but we already know that viral posts and fact rarely travel together. I'm not saying that there isn't some truth behind the post - I am sure that many waiters and waitresses have had to wait longer because of diners doing something on a phone. If the author had been more conservative on the numbers, estimating that the average stay at perhaps ten minutes more than in the past, that would have been much more believable.

People tend to assume the worst about someone using their phone. For example, if someone sees a single mom sitting on a park bench, using her phone while her young son plays on the playground in front of her, many naturally assume she is a bad mom. She's ignoring her child, who may even be calling "Mom...mom!" repeatedly, and we'd never do something so rude. Of course, if we knew that she was setting up Skype so that she could show her husband in Afghanistan images of his son at play, we might feel differently, but that's not our first thought, is it? I'm thinking it has something to do with the phone/tablet itself, with technology, rather than the actual act of not answering her child. Let's say she is merely chatting on the phone (text or voice) with her best friend. If we see this situation happen via the phone, we may be far more likely to consider the mother as rude, but if she is standing there in person, speaking with her friend face to face, while the son tugs on her coat trying to get her attention, we may be more likely to consider the son rude for interrupting.

I get this sometimes myself. Especially before they were as common as they are now, I used to get stares in church from people seeing me use the phone during the sermon. I am sure they thought I was doing something inappropriate, but I was merely opening my Bible. Apparently, silent flat screens are more distracting to some than the flutter of onion-skin paper. Likewise, people might assume I can't read a (paper) map if I'm looking at the same map on a screen. The guy reading a newspaper as he drinks coffee at the diner is cool, but the guy reading the same newspaper on a phone should move along. Some might see a tourist taking photos with his phone and think that they are somehow missing the experience, but if that same tourist was taking photos with an old-school 35 mm camera, they are doing it right.

Part of it must be the inevitable backlash against technology. Our grandparents were likely warned by our great grandparents that putting a television in the family room would destroy the family, and new advances are often considered evil, especially if not understood.  Anti-technology sentiment is particularly strong in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: the good forces are those closest to primitive nature (the Shire is "all that's good and green in the world"), while evil relies on technology. Saruman is described as having "a mind like metal and wheels", and the Uruk-hai are created in a hive of furnaces and gears. Of course, the LOTR books sit on my bookshelf, produced at least in part by the destruction of trees, and the movies, as well as the DVD player, are products of technology.

Our society continues to change, and technological advances do have some impact. People are waiting longer to marry than on previous generations, and teen pregnancy rates continue to fall. I'm certainly not suggesting that smartphone use by teens is responsible for a decline in teenage sexual activity, but in all seriousness, considering drug use, underage drinking, gang violence - all the things that "those kids today" could be doing instead - I am relatively fine with someone keeping to themselves, reading or chatting, using a computer-phone. It's really not so bad, is it?

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