This morning, I came across We Never Look Up, a Tumblr where an anonymous photographer posts the photos he snaps of everyday people looking down at their phones.
The photographer told Mashable:
“My inspiration was mainly commuting to work. Seeing people sitting in buses with their heads down, walking from point A to B without looking straight, waiting on trains and trams, silent, heads bowed down. And seeing people sitting in cafes and restaurants across from each other, using their phones, not uttering a word. You know, basic behavior nowadays.”
He also said he isn’t judging the behavior (provided it’s not dangerous to others) and that he just wanted to document it.
While he might not be judging, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing about our plugged-in culture and comments like the photographer’s, about people sitting next to each other and not speaking because they are on their phones. And I think it might be a bit of an overreaction. While there are definitely some gross things about the smartphone obsession (from the effects on our bodies to the effects on our relationships), and there are certainly times when I have to detach myself from the phone or tablet and go do something human again, I can’t say that I think this culture of never looking up is as bad as some make it out to be.
Part of this probably comes from the fact that I never looked up even before technology was as present as it is now; I was a kid with her face in a book all the time. And commuters have always made their trip easier with books, newspapers, and magazines. So for a lot of people, myself included, having your face in your phone is just an extension of that. But people tend to assume that being on your phone means you are doing something stupid or shallow or unenlightened, that experiencing the “real world” is somehow more noble than what you’re experiencing on your phone. And in plenty of cases, that’s probably true. But there’s also the very real possibility that people are on their phones creating good work, connecting with others, or simply being entertained. So while there’s absolutely something to hearing your friend’s voice, there’s also something about being able to catch up with your friend more often because you can do it without hearing her voice.
As for the people at the cafe who are on their phones instead of talking, I know Eric and I have been in similar situations before, and while I know how it looks to some outsiders (“kids these days…”), I also know that it’s actually not a big deal. Why? Because Eric and I talk all the damn time. Taking a break to communicate with others or to read something interesting is a good idea once in a while. When we scroll through our phones at breakfast, I don’t see it as much different than the scene from 50 years ago of a couple reading different sections of the paper at breakfast. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times when I say, “OK, enough with the screens, let’s be human again” when we’ve been doing it for a while. But that’s the thing; I say that. Because even though I love everything my phone can do, I also love spending time with Eric and appreciating the whole reality of him, rather than his image or typed words.
I do wonder if some of the differences in opinions here are generational. When I was at SXSW last year, I had a really interesting conversation with Elizabeth Bernstein, the relationship columnist for the Washington Post, about how we communicate nowadays. She was of the belief that texting just leads to problems in relationships and that it’s a terrible thing to text big news or share it through Facebook. But I suggested that for a generation who has been communicating via quickly-written words for years, perhaps we’ve developed a more nuanced way of doing it that means we don’t actually experience the breakdown in conversation or misunderstandings she found so common. (I know that whenever I text with anyone who is more than three years older than I am, there is a noticeable difference in how they text — a lot more “u” “2″ and abbreviations like that.) I would say most of my friends and I are pretty good at communicating tone extremely clearly via text, chat, or email. And because that’s how we communicate and how we prefer to communicate, we often aren’t offended by receiving big news that way. (Frankly, when my phone rings, my first thought is that somebody died.)
I’m kind of over the assumption that being on your phone a lot and never looking up is a bad thing or signals the death of something sacred. If one person wants to talk and the other person is on his or her phone during their entire hangout, yeah, that’s a problem. But if both people are into what they are doing, or the person is alone, I say, carry on.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Do you judge people who never look up or who look at their phones and don’t talk to each other? Or do you do it and think it’s totally not a big deal?