In praise of looking down

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Last week a video called Look Up made the social media rounds. It features an earnest young spoken word poet, Gary Turk, extolling the virtues of ignoring the screen in your hand and enjoying the world, and the people, around you. It's a well-made video but is as subtle as a sack of hammers to the nose. And, I beg to differ.

Of course I agree that we should acknowledge the people and places in the moment. But I disagree that using a handheld computer prevents that. And, I think the poet generalizes about the value of face-to-face contact and makes sentimental mush out of contact with random strangers.

But, let's start with the straw man that somehow today's technology has created a wholesale shift in the way humans interact. Smartphones as Ground Zero for downcast zombies.

Here's a lovely Punch cartoon from 1906 that shows that back then folks had the same concerns about sweethearts, the telegram and looking down in public. And here's a photo from 1946 showing commuters buried in their newspapers. Technology making anti-social drones of us all -- it's a timeless, easy trope. I'm sure there were Edwardian and Cold War poets who were fretting about Morse code and newsprint.

Next, let's deconstruct the notion that interacting with other human beings in the flesh trumps all other forms of social engagement. Some does, certainly. Like the comfort of a friend at a funeral or the affectionate hug given to a sister on the birth of her first child. But I've ridden enough commuter trains to know that a good deal of human interaction is loud endless conversations about Dancing with the Stars or how it took forever for Bill to get the washer in the bathroom sink changed. And, honestly, when I hear that junk food chatter I wish the speakers would bury themselves in their phone screens and shut up.

As an introvert I often feel a lot of face-to-face conversation is overrated and that I'm trapped in an extrovert's world where even the smallest verbalized brainfart, inane observation or compulsive oversharing is valued more highly than even 30 seconds of companionable silence. So, no, Mr. Turk, I don't relish the idea of striking up conversations with strangers who are just as apt to be tedious, babbling bores as former prima ballerinas now in their golden years and willing to share bon mots about their halcyon days in Russia.

And, finally, the extroverted, idealistic Mr. Turks of the world have no idea why it is I'm looking down at my phone, anyway. Perhaps I am recording the ambient sounds around me, which I could do better if everyone would just keep their opinions about Miley Cyrus's baby bump to themselves. Maybe I was sharing a photo of a lovely detail, or the play of shadow on a face or the interaction of colour and line that is there, and then gone.

Maybe I'm making social contact via my smartphone in a way that is more comfortable for me and my personality -- which is about as far from gregarious and sunny as China is from North Bay. In short, maybe I'm actually paying more attention and having more valuable social engagement than the "be here now" chatterboxes around me. Or, maybe I'm not.

Maybe I'm just making my sunflower spit seeds at a zombie wearing a road safety cone. But, you know, that's my choice in that moment, in that now, and I'm doing no one any harm. And, I'm certainly not being a self-righteous anti-technology Pollyanna who imagines that if we all looked up from our phone, life would turn into one big group hug Coke commercial.

There are lots of ways to be social, some of them involve a smartphone. And, there are lots of ways to be antisocial, none of which involve technology. So, Mr. Turk, if you don't make me spark up a forced conversation with someone I've never met, I won't make you share a photo of something you didn't see because you were too busy doing just that.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, below:

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: El Alvi/flickr

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