Tag Archives: spectatorship

Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid

The solitary self is becoming an unfamiliar place we would rather not visit.

We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse is costing us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness.

A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over a hundred in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even to the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

The new year is a good time to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.

We May Need to Start Teaching Conversation Skills

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight Source: U-tube
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight        Source: U-tube

There are good but troubling reasons to predict a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach conversation skills.

It’s easy to imagine that our absorption with digital media will soon require adjustments to school curricula to formally model the process of engaged conversation.  With rates of attention to screens at astronomical highs, Americans seem to be spending less time directly conversing with each other in the same physical space.  And while it has become a cliché to bemoan “the lost art of conversation”—virtually every parent of a thirteen year old will express this in some form—there are good reasons to expect a redesign of the K-12 curriculum in the next decade to explicitly teach and model the skills of direct engagement.  Schools with low teacher-to-student ratios already do this as a pedagogical style.  It’s natural to put learning within a conversational frame.

To understand the importance of conversation we need to remember that the central model for communication is the dialogue.  From the dialogues of Plato to the advocacy-saturated screenplays of Aaron Sorkin, the act of talking with another is taken to be the generative source of how we discover who we are and what we believe. By comparison, a monologue can seem like an orphan: a living thing withering without its natural counterpart.

The Greeks were among the first to enshrine the truth-testing as a representative purpose of entering into direct discussion. The power of “dialectic”–the give and take of discussion–is not simply as rhetorical decoration for professional philosophers.  We know what’s at stake every time our ideas or preferences are challenged by others. Can we successfully respond?  Can we defend what we believe?  Conversations do not have the sparkling repartee of a dinner with André. But they need the feature of putting two people in the same space to be immediate interlocutors with each other.  Anonymous comments added at the bottom of an online post just won’t cut it.

Consider Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of films about love gained and lost—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013).  All of these popular features are constructed as extended conversations over the life cycle of a relationship. Linklater wrote the films with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the actors who fully embody the couple. A viewer ends up enthralled not because of what they do, but because of what they say. They are alive to the world and the choices they’ve made. They appear to know each other in ways that couples who have become mute cannot match.

Another important writer/director makes the same point by giving us just the reverse: fascinating models of conversation that have metastasized into something more toxic. David Mamet is known to audiences and actors as the creator of encounters crippled by stilted exchanges.  His characters typically flounder in a choppy surf of incomplete sentences, corrosive asides and blank stares. In films like Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), they mostly pay the price.  Misunderstandings are compounded.  Distrust begins to flourish.  And characters are unable to complete thoughts without resorting to abusive threats.

By contrast, young kids are natural conversationalists. Most  like to talk. They want to exercise their growing curiosity about others. Reading a book with a child is often a delight (unless you are in a hurry) because almost every page is an invitation for commentary and questions. Reading is not the solitary activity it becomes in adulthood.  With more age, the conversational impulse isn’t necessarily killed, but it’s smothered in packaged media content that is still mostly one-way. As it is now, a child in a home brimming with screens seems to be pushed to move from early loquaciousness to comfortable spectatorship. Most of my colleagues note that coaxing even high-performing college students into conversational can be a challenge.

This will all need to change if we want to produce a new generation of active listeners and engaged problem-solvers.  We are simply going to have to start earlier to teach and model the kind of animated conversational skills that define what it means to be fully alive to the moment.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu