The easiest, laziest, most click-baitiest op-ed, trend video, or thing to scream at a bar right now is how, with today’s technologies, we are more connected but also more alone. Ooh. Zuckerberg has 500 million friends but it was never really a spoiler to say that Sorkin’s The Social Network ends with him sitting alone at a computer. Ooh. The Turkle-esque irony is just too good for it not to zeitgeist all over the place.
That argument should not be altogether dismissed but I am quite skeptical of where it’s so often coming from and how it’s articulated. This trend might be largely disingenuous, and by that I do not mean intentionally insincere but instead a sort of cultural positioning: we-are-connected-but-alone not only drips with that delicious ironic juxtaposition, it simultaneously props the person making the case as being somehow deeper, more human, more in touch with others and experience.
We could critique this prominent cultural narrative about technology at this level alone, but there’s an added layer: the whole premise is largely false. Research suggests over and over again that people are using mobile devices and social media to connect more with others, even face to face. The technologies of isolation and loneliness were the automobile and the television, and even though we’re starting to see a reversal of the long term rise in social isolation (for some [pdf]), there continues to be cultural insecurity around loneliness. Which is understandable, but misplacing our worries on one of the few trends that is pushing back against isolation isn’t helpful.
I’ve said all of that more than a few times before, and I’m bringing it up again here to comment on a short video that has very recently and totally unsurprisingly gone all viral. I’ve written about it in longer form and lesser snark for a larger piece I’m working on, but some folks asked for my thoughts in the interim. So, “I Forgot My Phone”:
The genius of this video is showing highly intimate or social occasions ruined by people looking at their phones. The smartphone blatantly intrudes on moments in bed or mouth-to-mouth that should be had sans mediation. The dinner table or bowling league are communal gatherings wasted because everyone’s nose-froze to a screen. If people are paying attention to what is happening, it’s still mediated by the device: the comic, the band, the birthday candles all mere Facebook fodder. People are too busy documenting what is happening to experience it. Though, not everyone in the video is so antisocial, disrespectful, and disconnected from the moment. The protagonist can recognize how terribly things have gone wrong. She alone has the special, childlike ability to experience friendship and intimacy in this world of techno-automatons missing life in favor of their handheld stimulation machines. Powerful stuff.
This is an art piece, not a documentary. It’s meant to provoke rather than be totally accurate, so tossing out a bunch of research isn’t as important as the point that people really do feel like phones are intruding on personal experience. People really do act awful with their phones all the time. If you are at a table with a bunch of people and you’re annoyed that they’re thumb-deep much of the time, you’re probably hanging out with the wrong people. (And if you are forced to hang out with these people, then whipping out your own device [if you have one] is probably a good idea: rudeness as resistance). I get it: there are people I don’t love being around because they are always on their phones. I get bored and start pulling my own phone out and I subsequently hang out with them less. If what you get from this video is not to be rude with your phone, cool.
But don’t-be-rude is just the most charitable reaction to this video. Really, there’s more going on here and it has to do with the fetishization of the real and human and connected. The sentimental sappiness of this trend on display in this video is the fiction that people are not connecting anymore, that people are robots rather than human, that we’ve lost experience in the moment…but I am the special exception. Opposed to this video, the result of mobile phones isn’t that we spend every minute looking at our screens but that we enjoy the moments away from our screens even more.
This isn’t about the problems of digital connection, it’s about propping oneself up as more human and alive. By identifying with and sharing the video, we can put ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I too recognize this! I am human and deep and carpe diem. But let’s consider the implication of showing others as robots who don’t live in the moment: you are basically saying they are less human in order to assert how above the unthinking-cellphone-zombie masses you are. Human connection, togetherness, and in-the-moment experience isn’t going away, indeed, we cherish it more than ever. Rad. But, then, more than that, we’ve become obsessed with it, treating the real as a fetish object, all in the name of appealing to the deeply conservative impulse to rank who is more or less human. In an upcoming piece, I’ll discuss more how turning on a screen at a concert or dinner has come to warrant such deep moral concern, more than simple etiquette but this kind of melodramatic, existential, anxiety.
In sum, the video makes a cliché point in the least interesting way possible by simply showing people on their phones while a protagonist frowns. I Forgot My Phone is basically a 130-second self-righteous Sorkinization of an Atlantic cover. It’s driven by the reality that some people are rude with their phones. But much of its popularity is the result of the larger narrative that we’re trading-the-real-for-the-virtual which is largely untrue and instead functions to make those sharing the video sure of themselves as a very extra special person.