The iPhone recently marked its 10th anniversary. This invention has transformed the way we live, streamlining communication, expediting news and revolutionizing dating, to name just a fraction of its impact. A private driver or in-home masseuse is just a few taps away. It has made printed maps, datebooks and Rolodexes all but obsolete and done away with the need to write important information on scraps of paper you can never find when you need them. Smartphones have enabled us to work from anywhere and keep tabs on all of our friends’ weddings, babies and vacations. We can make restaurant reservations without speaking to a hostess, identify a new musician playing while we dine and download their entire catalogue before the appetizers arrive. You can spend Sunday afternoon catching up on Game of Thrones or the latest in the political circus whether at home, a baseball game in extra innings or your third cousin’s Bat Mitzvah. One can choose from no fewer than 7,370,000 results for “avocado toast recipe” or ascertain exactly how many degrees Mahershala Ali is from Kevin Bacon (it’s 2). The world is literally at our fingertips, but innovation has wrought myriad distractions from real connection.
Millennials grew up in the digital age. To many, their online personae have become more meaningful than their real lives. Older adults too have succumbed to the lure of creating a curated image, taking 42 shots to achieve an effortless-looking photo, then spending 10 minutes editing it and thinking up a witty caption so they can show off their #blessed lives to an ever-growing band of followers. With the right tools and enough effort, anyone can make their life look picture-perfect. But what is this focus on image in the age of the reality star costing us?
Increasingly, teens and adults define themselves by their digital presence and seek validation in likes and follows over real relationships.
Outings with social-media savvy friends have become less about enjoying the visit and more about capturing the action for snaps and Insta-stories. What’s the point of living the dream unless your crush and your ex and that kid who watches every story the second you post it can see what you’re up to? As if the need to publicly document one’s own life weren’t enough, people think nothing of scrolling through Instagram while socializing to make sure they are not missing any of the fun others are having.
We have become obsessed with social-media stalking other people’s lives – and trying to make our own look like they measure up – so much so that those of us who do not keep up with our friends through posts are considered quaint. After all, why talk to the people in your life when they should be following you – and already know what you’re up to?
If a tree falls in the forest and no one Snapchats it, does it make a sound?
Families rarely have a meal together without parents and children absorbed by something on their phones. If the kids aren’t old enough to have their own phones yet, they are well-versed in watching cartoons or playing games on the family iPad, pacified by the knowledge that they will someday have their very own phone as a constant companion, loyal as long as you remember to charge it. With easy access to captivation in the palm of our hands, we are not able to be present with the people in our lives.
Phones, by design, with their small screens meant for personal use, foster isolation and exclusion. Each person in his own world, engrossed in something far more fascinating on the phone 12 inches from his face than anything anyone else in the room could be saying or doing. The lure of personalized entertainment at our beck and call makes it challenging to connect with friends and family, and even more difficult to build relationships with new people.
The proliferation of dating apps has turned seeking a mate into a game, with a never-ending stream of players. Singles are far better at crafting a witty line for their profiles than participating in an interesting dialogue with a date in an effort to truly get to know one another. And with unlimited options comes a disincentive from settling down with one partner. It is always possible your perfect match could be right around the corner and it would be a shame to miss them by giving the person in front of you a real chance. But what if the person in front of you would make an amazing partner if only you would offer them your attention without discreetly checking to see who else you’ve matched with when they go to the bathroom? What if you miss an ideal match because you’re too busy swiping for a figment around the corner to notice them across the table?
What if you’re too busy checking your Twitter feed or adding a flower crown filter to your latest Snap story to notice them in the coffee shop or at the gym? We no longer have to talk to strangers. The phone has become a crutch. There is always something we could legitimately be doing on our phones to alleviate the pressure to have conversations IRL. It is the cure for any potentially awkward encounter that might involve anyone showing vulnerability.
Imagine if we all focused as much on engaging with the people around us, and living lives of integrity, as we did on our image or the news or the e-mails that could probably wait until morning.
Our phones provide us endless diversions but why are we so eager to be distracted? Are we all living lives of quiet desperation, seeking respite in a virtual world of inanity? Is real life so boring or painful that we need the constant stimulation of whatever we can access on our phones to capture our attention and assuage the existential loneliness it ironically perpetuates?
Our need for connection is biological, ensuring the survival of our species. We build communities, seek romantic partners and procreate. Our phones and their unlimited capacities distract us from this need, but they do not eliminate it. The flood of endorphins we get from the content on our screens is like the one elicited by a lab rat who has learned that tapping a particular lever will release a treat pellet. We have come to crave that rush like a heroin addict craves a fix, and for that same reason – as a device to help us cope with our lives. And just like a drug, that rush is fleeting and counterproductive because it leaves us feeling empty, with less of the connection we really want.
There is no question our phones have made life easier in countless ways. But they have also impeded our ability to connect with those around us.
The next time you gather with friends and family, consider taking a break from your phone, and encourage others to do the same. Notice what it’s like to be with people without the pull of the outside world. If anxiety about what you might be missing arises, notice that, and bring yourself back to the present moment because that’s all we really have. You can spend it looking at hamster videos or your college roommate’s ex-girlfriend’s day at the pumpkin patch. Or you can be where you are in this moment and appreciate the people in your real life. The choice is yours. Choose wisely or you may find yourself like Dorian Gray, with a beautifully crafted online presence that bears no resemblance to the person behind it. So once in a while put your phone in its charger, crank up some Prince tunes and connect with yourself and the people around you while you party like it’s, well, 1999.