Thinking About: Girl Engrossed in Cellphone


There was an article in The New Yorker recently, “The Useless Agony of Going Offline,” about a man who started the year off with a three-day tech break—inspired by his reading about how a selfie can turn tragic. “Guy Looking at Device,” the headlines read. (Have you heard how many people died taking selfies?) He writes: “I’d ring in the New Year by logging off, then not use my phone, my computer, or any social media for a full seventy-two hours.” He admits this isn’t the most ambitious plan—pre-emptively, no doubt, for anyone who scoffs at the brevity of a 72-hour “break.” But for most of us, it’s probably harder than it sounds.

While in Las Vegas with Aron last year, I would leave my cell phone in the hotel safe, figuring that he’d be reachable in case of emergency and that having my undivided attention with him was the more important thing. But when I brought it down to the pool to read the newspaper one morning, I found myself scrolling through Instagram and Feedly and all the usual suspects to see what I’d missed. “What is wrong with me?!” I sort of thought to myself when I realized I’d been staring at my screen again rather than just enjoying the pool. Into the water I went…

So, in a way, it made me feel better to read Mr. Malady’s article. He describes an all-too-familiar scenario of multitasking and parallel tech-play with his wife at night before describing his three-day-hiatus, with the slightly tongue-in-cheek tone of someone experiencing the longest days of his life that leave him in a state of “disdain for the logged-off existence”:

I didn’t miss my smartphone, or the goofy watch I own that vibrates when I receive an e-mail and lets me send text messages by speaking into it. I didn’t miss Twitter’s little heart-shaped icons. I missed learning about new things.

I think it’s notable that Mr. Malady is a writer and, as a successful one, likely to be a researcher at heart as well. He goes on to say:

So many questions went unanswered during those seventy-two hours—so many curiosities cast aside and forgotten without being pursued. I was less harried, I suppose, but I was also far less informed, and not as advanced in my understanding of all sorts of things that interested me.

[…] I’m not sure that I used my time any “better” than I normally would have during that span. I just used it differently, and found myself frequently bored as a result. […] As Clay Shirky noted in a Wall Street Journal essay a few years ago, “Despite frequent genuflection to European novels, we actually spent a lot more time watching ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ than reading Proust, prior to the Internet’s spread.”

I found myself nodding along, thinking about how I can wax nostalgic for arduous L.A. commutes that gave me time to listen to N.P.R. There are so many tangents to this: When I lament my attachment to my phone, I realize it’s the convenience that I both love and loathe, in particular for how it appears. For example, I love that Aron can text me about picking up dinner on the way home, but I loathe that it makes me pull it out of my pocket in front of the kids who can’t tell whether I’m looking at social media, checking the weather, thinking of taking a picture, reading the newspaper, looking up directions, or playing a game. I was telling a friend that I’m actually a fan of the old-school call now and then, simply because it’s so clear why you’re on your phone if you’re talking into it. And of course I’m glad I can read the news while in line at DMV and that there aren’t papers piling up in our recycling, but I might have to subscribe to paper delivery one day again just to be sure we get the pleasure of passing around sections at the breakfast table. To come back to the point:

Would you enjoy logging off for a full seventy-two hours? Would you miss being online? What would you hope to gain?  

[Photo via]

P.S. More Thinking About posts. (And, it’s not the first time I’ve talked about a love/hate relationship with smartphone distraction.)

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