Friday, October 04, 2013

Disruptive devices



“I Forgot My Phone” is a disconcerting film by Charlene deGuzman that depicts a fictional day in her life without her phone. The short — which has more than 20 million hits to date — confronts us with how our use of smart­phones can disrupt our lives and relationships.

In the film, deGuzman’s isolation in the midst of her friends is palpable. While she watches a sunrise, her boyfriend turns his back and talks on his phone. Table conversation during a lunch with her girlfriends suffers a gradual death when everyone starts checking their phones. During a birthday celebration, everyone stares at their phones as they record it or take “selfies” while deGuzman is left holding a cake with melting candles.

Some think the film exaggerates smartphone use, but I find it hits too close to home. While working on this column during my son’s baseball practice, I checked email on my iPhone, texted my daughter, scrolled through Facebook and posted twice on Instagram. I didn’t talk to another soul. The irony doesn’t escape me.

Our use of smartphones and gadgets like them has the power to change the way we approach life and others.

“Every experience is being mediated and conceived around how it can be captured and augmented by our devices,” says researcher Mathias Crawford in Nick Bilton’s New York Times blog post, “Disruptions: More Connected, Yet More Alone.”

Using smartphones like this damages our souls. “By design, it’s an environment of almost constant interruptions and distractions,” wrote Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. “The smartphone, more than any other gadget, steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts.”

We miss out on life. “We’re not staying in the moment anymore because we are looking at our phones,” deGuzman said during an interview on Good Morning America. “And lots of special moments are passing us by.”

Many of those moments are with those around us — and that should give us pause.

In Jesus Creed, Scot McKnight says Jesus gave his followers a new creed for life: Love God and others. Part of loving others is being present with them. And that’s hard to do if we’re always on or processing through our smartphones.

But we can’t blame it all on smartphones. When technology journalist Paul Miller reflects on a one-year break from the Internet on Verge in “I’m Still Here,” he says at first he noticed a sense of productivity and freedom and found himself more attentive to others. But as the novelty wore off he realized that many of his issues with discipline, focus and relationships were still there. Miller observes, “I can’t blame the Internet or any circumstance for my problems.”

Many of the effects of smartphone and gadget misuse are manifestations of problems already within us, ranging from a craving for connection, validation or meaning to egotism, narcissism or a need to prove we exist.

But it’s not enough to be aware of our gadget obsession, the problems it causes or the reasons behind it. We must change the way we use our devices and cultivate a practice of living in the present and paying attention to others. In Evangelism Without the Additives, Jim Henderson urges us to become more like Jesus and “master the art of noticing, the practice of free attention giveaways.”

Some practical ways to begin? Put a basket for phones by the front door for distraction-free visits with guests. Agree with friends to pocket phones during meals and coffee dates. Schedule — and stick to — regular breaks from gadgets. And the next time you’re in a line, leave your smartphone alone and focus on those around you.

And me? I’m going to pocket my phone during my son’s next practice and see what happens next.


This is a slightly longer version of my column that posted in the Sept. 30 issue of MWR.