Southern Voice: Clint Brewer
“Get off of your damn phone!”
Those words are a veritable war cry for my family as we traverse Nashville for soccer practices, church and extracurricular activities.
Typically, this invective is delivered at a rather high volume from my otherwise sweet, and at times shy, wife as she suffers inattentive drivers in high-speed traffic staring at small screens rather than the road ahead. They don’t hear her, but she feels better after scolding them from the safe, relatively soundproof perch of our large SUV.
The iconic science fiction writer Philip K. Dick saw all of this coming. He saw much of what we suffer through in modern society coming.
In a new Amazon series “Electric Dreams,” based on Dick’s short stories, actress Anna Paquin’s character engages in a futuristic version of virtual reality. She loses track of which reality is real – the one she started in or the one she visits. The tragic result is she has to choose one reality over the other, and the virtual reality seems more real to her than her own.
In the end, Paquin’s character ends up brain-dead, much like the people looking at their smartphones on Interstate 40 while they barely pilot tons of sheet metal packed with their family members and a tank of flammable petrol. What is more “real,” one’s imminent, frail mortality at 80 m.p.h. or a cat meme on Facebook?
Last year, the Wall Street Journal published a piece that offered a compendium of disturbing facts about smartphones. For starters, based on Apple’s own data, the average user looks at an iPhone about 80 times a day. That is 30,000 times in a year. Furthermore, research shows the mere presence of a smartphone creates so much of a distraction to the average undergraduate that a “brain drain” occurs, significantly driving down a person’s ability to perform tasks that require reason, logic and a basic level of attention.
Earlier this month, Apple’s own shareholders issued an open letter to the company asking it to study how their devices may be having damaging effects on small children. The company did not at first respond to the letter, nor did parents across America who allow their toddlers to plug into an iPad or tablet every time they want some peace and quiet at a restaurant.
This really all started before the smartphone, though.
Since the internet became available to consumers in the mid-1990s, it has changed more things than we can count. Electronic mail, or email, has been around since the 1960s. In modern society, the vast array of ways we communicate digitally has changed the way we communicate holistically.
My favorite example is that ever-reliable 21st century communicator, The Digital Badass.
You know them, that growing group of people in our society that have split personalities – one person on email, text, direct message or social media, and another entirely in person or on the phone. Their digital selves are far, far more abrasive, insulting and brave than they ever would be during live communication. Get them on the phone, much less in a room, and the toughness vanishes once they are not hiding behind a wall of zeros and ones.
RELATED: Are You Addicted to Your Phone?
Humankind’s obsession with the smartphone and other devices is understandable. Estimates vary as to how many devices the smartphone has replaced in our lives. The numbers range from 40 to 180. This list is simplistic but interesting. Imagine carrying around a phone, a camera, a laptop, a cable television box, 50 books, a radio and a compass. Now, that and hundreds of other things are in a device smaller than a scientific calculator.
We also pour our own identities into these devices, using applications and consumer internet platforms to index and characterize our lives. To see the net effect, try getting most people ages 12 to 35 to allow an impromptu photo be taken of them. In many cases, that is met with a dodge, a stiff arm or a demand for editing rights before it is posted anywhere.
These smartphones are used to curate and craft our self-images. But, are the lives that they reflect on Snapchat and Instagram our real lives? Or, somewhere along the way, did we choose instead to live in our virtual reality, like Ms. Paquin’s character? It is possible we have lost track of what is real and what is not.
The next time you are out in public in a crowded place just stop for a second, pick up your head and notice how many people are standing there just staring at their phones and doing little else. They are not talking to the people they are with, enjoying their dinner, looking at the sky or simply taking in the day. They are staring at a little screen.
I am far from a Luddite on this topic, nor am I without guilt. As a former journalist and a communications consultant, I could probably teach the Russians a thing or two about influencing opinion online. I have overseen the creation of somewhere around 50 websites. My teenage daughter has chastised me for looking at my phone at the dinner table more than once. I am even using my first piece of wearable tech.
But, author Dick has terrified me again, as he often does, with his visions of tomorrow. The zeitgeist of this early century should not be captured by the glow of a small screen reflecting off human eyes.
Try getting off your damn phone.
Clint Brewer is a principal at Stones River Group, a public affairs consulting firm in Nashville, TN. He previously served as an assistant commissioner for economic development in the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam. Prior to that he was an award-winning journalist and daily newspaper editor.
WANT TO CONTRIBUTE TO “SOUTHERN VOICES”? READ SUBMISSION GUIDELINES AND SUBMIT YOUR ORIGINAL WORK HERE.