Keep Your Phone Out and Conversation Shallow

An article in the New York Times cited a fascinating study about people and technology. The study found when people sit down to dinner with each other but keep their phones in reach, they’re more likely to keep the conversation shallow so they can dip in and out while scrolling through news feeds or text messages. Even when two people set their phones on the table or in their peripheral vision, it limited the depth of their conversation as well as their sense of connection. I stood motionless with astonishment for a full minute after I read it.

Clearly, our mobile connectivity costs something.

Like my tendency at a live concert or a fun night out with friends, it’s tempting to capture the right moment with a photo or check on social media updates. Sometimes it feels like a bad habit I need to kick, the frequent impulse to turn my focus to the little screen in my pocket.

Some decry the potential harm of social media. Since it’s such a young branch of technology, we don’t yet know what it does to us long-term. Decades before smartphones and Instagram, one author warned how photography takes us out of the moments we’re living:

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”
—Italo Calvino, 1984

The Cost of Social

Culture trends project that we’ll continue getting more and more “social,” but at what cost? Everything posted online is archived. Our digital footprint balloons into a lifestyle database, but we barely even stop to consider the legacy our data will convey.
Something is happening to the way we experience life. With the emergence of more and more personalized apps and opportunities for sharing, we subconsciously view our lives as a series of content rather than a stream of existence.

Rather than an ebbing and flowing existence, anchored deep in relationships and growing through struggle, our lives have become news feeds of only our best content. We might post photos of a trendy pastry shop or brunch place under perfect lighting and a blurb about catching up with someone we love (guilty as charged), just so our followers can see how exotic and connected our lives are. But wouldn’t it be better to sit down over coffee and talk honestly with a friend than to merely share it on social media? I’m preaching to myself, too.

What if we set aside the screens between us, getting past each other’s curated moments to see each other’s character? We could share our real selves, highlights and low points and all. I immediately saw this tension when Donald Miller wrote, “If we live behind a mask, we can impress but we can’t connect.”

Though I still take photos at concerts and tweet my appreciation of a restaurant’s food or drink, I’m trying to be conscious of the way I allow screens closer access to experiences than I allow myself.

Am I trying to capture a moment or am I really dwelling in it?

Maybe you’ve asked yourself that question, and maybe it challenges you the way it challenges me.

Excerpt from “The Variable Life,” Chapter 41, “Seeing Through Screens.”
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