By Steve Kelman

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Our brave new smartphone world

Girls at the Rijksmuseum, ignoring The Night Watch - posted to Facebook by Alvaro Garnero and shared by Steve Kelman

I occasionally notice interesting pictures on my Facebook newsfeed and share them on my page. I would say such shared pictures typically arouse scant attention -- somewhere between zero and five "likes" or comments.

Last weekend, however, I noticed one such picture and shared it. It showed in the background Rembrandt's classic painting The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. On a nearby bench sat six young girls, facing away from the picture. Each was staring down at a smartphone. And not only were they ignoring the picture, they were ignoring each other.

To my surprise, this shared photo went sort of viral on my page, receiving 91 likes and 19 comments.

Apparently, the reaction of my own Facebook friends was not unique. I just checked back at the original post, from a popular Brazilian entertainer named Alvaro Garnero. His post with The Night Watch and the young girls received over 18,000 likes and 61,000 shares. (His Facebook page has over a million likes, somewhat more than mine.)

I think the resonance this photo creates tells us something about a trend that instinctively makes many of us uneasy about our digital society. (Incidentally, one commenter on his original post claimed the picture really showed the girls taking a virtual tour of the Rijksmuseum. That is possible, but seems weird given how they are sitting, facing the painting.) Most of us have seen couples at a restaurant sitting across from each other on a table doing something with their smartphones, rather than talking with each other. This may be apocryphal, but I like to believe that two people sitting next to each other are sometimes communicating with each other by text message rather than in words.

One of the comments on my post stated: "A brilliant commentary on so many levels. It's not only about them ignoring the art, it's also about them ignoring each other (mostly -- some are sharing a phone). The distinction between the interaction with those around you and the anodyne distinction of interaction via phone. It's a sad reflection on our inability to communicate effectively with each other and that, ultimately, we might imagine, will lead to trouble."

Others commented more briefly: "The times we live in," "The irony is (probably) that they are texting one another on the bench," and finally: "This is the acquired version of autism. So sad."

We should reflect a bit about what exactly we are worried about, and what it is about some digital technologies that bring forth the behaviors that make us uneasy. (The MIT professor Sherry Turkle has written about this phenomenon in a book, tellingly titled Alone Together, which I have not read but now, based on my and others' reaction to this photo, plan to pick up soon.)

I think what we are worried about is fairly straightforward. People interact, and should interact, with the world around them in many different ways: Sometimes I want to curl up in a private space with a book, or zone out watching TV. Sometimes I want to communicate and connect with other people virtually (or in writing); I actually am a fan of the somewhat low-involvement communication with friends and acquaintances that a social media site such as Facebook allows. But a crucial part of a human being is our desire and willingness to get involved in deeper, closer communications, face to face, with other human beings.

I guess the worry about smartphones or other tools of virtual communication is that they destroy a pre-existing balance between more intimate, personal communication and other forms of interaction with the world by making the latter far easier and less-costly than they were before. Any economist will tell you that if the relative price of two things changes, consumption of the newly cheaper item compared to the other one will rise. This applies to consumption of isolated smartphone interactions vs. personal ones as much as it does to consumption of apples and bananas. If we believe, as I and most of the commenters on the picture seem to, that personal communication is an important part of leading a rich and fulfilling life, then we have reason to worry if it becomes a less-important part of how we live.

I will confess that, reflecting on this picture, I will re-examine my own behavior to make sure I am not becoming inappropriately imbalanced between the virtual and the personal. Why do we see these kinds of behaviors more in young people? The simple answer, I think, is that they have more weakly established habits of personal interactions, which, for older people, exerts a brake on quick behavior changes due to recent technological change. If young people establish a radically different balance from the one that has existed before, we should be concerned about what is happening in our societies.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 15, 2015 at 8:46 AM


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