Have you ever walked into an elevator full of strangers glued to their smartphones and it just didn’t feel right? Not that you knew them and they owed you some kind of greeting, but that there was an additional barrier in place, putting you one step further away from any kind of interaction with your fellow human beings? At best, a conversation would be struck up between you and one or more of the people on the elevator, or even among third parties without your participation to at least provide you with some subconscious reassurance that some real communication was in play. Next best would probably be a simple “hello”, and a level below that would be a smile or nod of acknowledgement. Eye contact would be the absolute minimum one could hope for.
Of course, strangers have been ignoring each other on elevators, or just shared public spaces in general long before the advent smart phones or even cell phones with text messaging capability. But it seems that cell phones now give people the ability to present an excuse for actively ignoring others. If it’s strangers we’re talking about here, there’s an unspoken understanding that hey, I don’t know you, you’re into whatever is happening on your phone, do your thing. It certainly does eliminate some of the awkwardness during the pre-cellphone days of what would have felt a forced social acknowledgement for the more naturally shy of the population. The fact that people have put up that additional barrier, whether it is intentional or not, is what feels unnatural. Like a cop-out from having to communicate the vibe that sorry, I’m just shy, or this is awkward so let’s agree to not even bother, or even I just don’t want to open up any channel of communication with you. Humans have evolved over many thousands of years to deal with those messages better than the one that feels like hah, now we’re all holding these things in our hands so we have an excuse.
What’s worse is when the cell phone barrier is erected among people who are acquainted, and in situations where the need for more interpersonal interaction is a definite. A recent youtube clip that has gone viral captures that dynamic pretty well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OINa46HeWg8 A woman is depicted going through her day amongst various people in her life, as well as strangers who are acquainted with one another, all stuck to cell phones that either preclude them from really being present in the moment as she is or simply just imposing an artificial element that seems awkward in the situation.
Let me be clear that I find the informative, communicative, entertaining, and moment-capturing technologies available in today’s phones to be astoundingly wonderful tools for us. The things we can do with small devices that fit in our pockets are mind-blowing and I love nearly all of them. We can connect with each other, purchase items, navigate routes, retrieve near-infinite amounts of information, document events, and play really fun games, music, and movies in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. Beyond our personal lives, smartphone applications serve as tremendous practical and time-saving benefits in the business world.
But we have to remind ourselves that these are still tools to be used to enhance life experiences, not replace or even hinder them. To put it in perspective, it’s amazing for my daughter and I to be able to FacetTime with my mother across the country, but I did my best to keep my phone out of the picture when she visited last week.
Mobile device technology is only accelerating and is certainly here to stay. The elevator full of strangers locked onto their phone screens is already the new norm for many. Maybe when everyone has moved along to eyewear devices like Google Glass, we can go back to looking at each other again, or just ignoring each other the old fashioned way.