Texting and Tweeting Instead of Living
Fran Stover sent out an electronic "It's a boy!" birth announcement, complete with picture, when she upgraded to a burgundy BlackJack II from Samsung in March. She nicknamed "him" Jack. When she knew she wouldn't have access to him for a spell, she worried about hurting his feelings and wondered if she should hire a babysitter.
Lucy Hackman flew to Bermuda last month for a wedding. On her way to the hotel, she fixed her attention not on the miles of ocean outside her taxi window but on the tiny window of her BlackBerry.
Megan Renz, who typically sends around 700 texts a day, including rapid-fire sessions when she's at the park with her 4-year-old son, Landon, curbed her online habit slightly during a Hawaiian vacation in May, when she jumped on her computer for only four hours a day. For fun.
Restaurant meals, family outings and holiday gatherings - not to mention movie dates, birthday parties and even baby showers - used to be about enjoying the moment of, say, a shared joke, a knowing glance or a sip of cold beer over a sunset. Now, thanks to technology, those moments are multi-tasked to the minute, to the point where even the digitally addicted admit they're so burrowed into their virtual lives they sometimes miss out on the real thing.
Cellphone cameras have replaced cigarette lighters as the concert torch of choice. Sure, scads of sequined gloves were dug out of closets, but Michael Jackson's memorial was remarkable more as a mass Facebook status update: 800,000 were posted during the two-hour tribute. For the July 15 premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, actually attending the event was only half the goal, it seemed, as Hogwarts-dressed teens texted "wish you were here"-style postcards to those who weren't. And remember when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was caught checking his BlackBerry during one of Malia's soccer games last summer - and was roundly reprimanded by Michelle, with a hand slap, for doing so?
It makes one wonder: Who will be around to watch the grass grow?
"We're so entrenched in what we're doing" - in the palm of our hand or in the canal of our ear - "that we're not paying attention to the outside world," says Ray Soto, 30, who has run into walls because his head is bowed into his iPhone.
Technology's tether is "terrible," says Renz, 24, of Hilton, N.Y. "I have a life and job and family, and I'm still on the thing," a Pantech Slate, her 10th or so smartphone since 2006.
We're all increasingly on them: A report released last year from M:Metrics, a mobile-media research firm, found that Americans browsed the Web an average of 4.6 hours a month from their smartphones, an 89% increase from 2007. A May study from consulting firm Gravitytank found that app-enabled phone owners spend an average of two hours a day on their devices, with nearly 40% of that time dedicated to app use. By 2013, smartphones will have doubled their share of the handset market, accounting for 20% of all cellphones, according to market research company In-Stat.
Of course, the safety risks linked to gadgets-on-the-go are well-documented: Last week, the Senate introduced legislation that aims to extend the ban on texting while driving. Even thumbing while on foot has its hazards: Last month, a texting teen tumbled down an uncovered manhole in Staten Island, N.Y. (She escaped serious injury.)
But it's the cultural consequences of shunning the corporeal moment in favor of the virtual one that are murkier. Dan Rasmus, director of business insights at Microsoft and co-author of Listening to the Future: Why It's Everybody's Business, calls one effect digital autism: When you're engrossed in the digital world, you're more disconnected from the social and physical world. In particular, it's the so-called virtuals, those born after 1999, who need watching. "They have parents and elder siblings behaving in a different way, so what are they learning about what's the right way to behave?"
Technology results in what psychologist Kenneth Gergen, a senior research professor at Swarthmore College, calls "absent presence": others are present, via a virtual connective thread, even though they're physically absent. It works the other way, too: You're at dinner, for example, and your partner disappears from the present moment by thumbing away under the tablecloth.
Frequent diner Sam Firer, whose public relations company represents two dozen restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, instructs his staff to stow their smartphones when they're at client restaurants, in part to set a good example for patrons: "I'd like my clients to know that we're not obnoxious, unlike many other diners these days."
That "green or blue glow" of a table-parked smartphone is emerging as the "subversive factor" in dining, says Frank Klein, a restaurant owner and consultant based in San Francisco and Boston. In the early part of the decade, traditional phone booths begat restaurant cellphone booths. "Now, maybe it's time to have a Twitter or text booth."
When someone's eyes drift to an iPhone midsentence - when they are present but absent - Firer is known to swivel his chair so his back faces the speaker. "They're doing the same thing, in essence."
Losing our 'creatureliness'
What worries Gergen is when "the environment itself, that living world upon which our creatureliness is based, is separated from us," distanced through a glowing screen. Without sensual engagement with their surroundings, people are becoming "post-human," Gergen says, "more a part of their machine world than their biological world."
Some companies are acknowledging this latest incarnation of the man-vs.-machine struggle with a wink. Consider that Corona beer's-eye-view-of-paradise ad, in which someone skips stones, and then his cellphone, into a lagoon after the phone starts buzzing. Or that Verizon/ESPN MVP ad in which a woman being feted at a baby shower watches college hoops highlights on her cell instead of oohing and aahing over her little-girl gifts.
Losing time to decompress
If we're interrupting our silver screen time with LED screen time, there's a social significance. In the past, waiting for a movie to start or an elevator to descend meant "you had a bit of forced downtime," says Patricia Wallace, head of online programs at Johns Hopkins' Center for Talented Youth and the author of The Psychology of the Internet. "It let you gather your wits or stare at the (floor) numbers. You were relieving your cognitive load" - you were engaging in forced relaxation. "Now you can suck up all those little slots of time and pour something into them, whether it's work or social, because you have a gadget."
Digital devotees see the shift. "I do think there's something to say about how we're not living in the moment and stopping to smell the roses," says New Yorker Karen Robinovitz, co-founder and creator of the new beauty brand Purple Lab. "But I think the roses are different now: They're virtual Facebook gifts," icons you send your Facebook friends as tokens of appreciation.
Robinovitz has started mashing together her online and in-person lives every month through tweet-ups, during which she and 10 to 15 similarly style-obsessed women gather to Twitter and, yes, talk between sips of lychee martinis. Robinovitz is the kind of person who, while heading to Sunday brunch with her husband, will tweet that very fact, which doesn't exactly thrill her better half. "He's like, 'C'mon, I want to spend time with you, not you on Twitter.'"
So a couple of weeks ago, she put down her BlackBerry and, with her husband, strolled along the High Line, a new park in Manhattan built atop an old elevated train track. For an hour, she wasn't distracted by anything but the wildflower décor and rooftop views. "There was something incredibly refreshing about it."
Somebody recently asked Robinovitz what achievement she was most proud of. She may have launched a lip gloss line in May, "and yet I was most proud of walking on the High Line and not Twittering."