As people sometimes say in their snarkier moods: I have a dumb-phone. It doesn’t do anything “smart.” I just use it to make and receive phone calls, period. (I know, what a concept.) It doesn’t surf the Web; it doesn’t tell me where to eat–indeed, it doesn’t tell me anything. It does take pictures, but in terms of resolution, I’m not sure there’s even a “mega-” in front of “pixels.”
I have, however, begun using a Wi-Fi tablet (the Nexus 7), which will take up much of the technological slack. I’m thinking of it as an e-reader on steroids, giving me access to my e-books and to the rest of the Web. But what I don’t want is to get sucked into a vortex of gaming and surfing. And I don’t want to be connected to the Internet in a way that disconnects me from the people right there in the room with me.
Have you ever noticed that odd moment when a roomful of people goes quiet because everyone’s looking at their phones? Often it’s because something comes up in the conversation that begs to be Googled. But it might not stop there. Hey, might as well check my email… I’ll just respond to this one message… Maybe just check my Facebook…
There’s a reason, for example, that we’re not supposed to text when we drive; texting leaves less of our attention to give to the road. True, some people are better at driving while multitasking. And we’re likely to assume that we’re in that category–but on the basis of what evidence? That nothing bad has happened yet? The research is clear: anything that distracts our attention while driving–including texting, using a cell phone (even hands free), having a conversation, or even just listening to music–increases the risk of an accident. The fact that we haven’t had an accident doesn’t necessarily mean we’re more skilled than anyone else. It may simply mean we’ve been lucky not to be driving distracted in the wrong place at the wrong time.
All that to say this: smart-phones and tablets–iPhones, iPads, and their kin–are both wonderful tools and supremely compelling distractions. To be sure, we use our devices to share interests and information, play together, or further a conversation. But the pull of the Internet may also disconnect a significant portion of our attention from the people around us.
We don’t mean it, and may not be aware that we’re doing it. But we should ask ourselves if we want to multitask our relationships. Because if the answer is no, then we may need to be more intentional about how we use those devices, so that our online connection doesn’t come at the expense of connecting with others right here, right now, face-to-face.