A few years ago, after receiving some bad directions from a man with a cool accent, I found myself embarrassingly lost in New Orleans’ French Quarter, en route to a destination whose name I can no longer recall. (I blame the Sazeracs.) So I decided to pull out my iPhone and punch the place into Google Maps to determine how not-even-close I was.
This, I learned, was a sight so troubling that strangers felt the need to inform me I was squandering what little time I had left here on earth.
An older man, who did not have a cool accent but did wear a hat with a feather in it (these guys always have hats with feathers in them), stopped abruptly on the sidewalk in front of me and placed his right hand on my left shoulder, like an uncle about to deliver bad news to a young nephew with a behavioral disorder.
“You’re in a beautiful city, and it’s a beautiful day,” he said, eyes all judgy (and maybe a little blurry — I blame the Sazeracs). “Why don’t you put that thing away and enjoy it? Look around! Take it in!” He then began waving his arms around in a Maria von Trapp-y fashion, presenting the glorious world he assumed I was unaware of until that watershed moment.
Though I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to say in response (“go fuck yourself”), all I managed was a limp smile before feather-hat, savior of all humanity, continued on his way down Rue Wherever It Was. How could I possibly consider quickly using my phone to access relevant information when there was just SO MUCH AROUND ME TO SEE? Unplug your brain from the grid and wake up to what’s happening, man!
It’s a completely forgettable moment, and I had managed to forget about it until recently, when a bit of viral content touching on the overwrought issue of smartphone abuse brought it back. Last week, an anonymous Craigslist post, claiming to be written by a rep from a busy NYC restaurant, began bouncing around online. In it, the writer purports to have conducted a study, using dining-room security footage, to determine what’s to blame for an overall slowdown in service from 2004 till now. (Funny how you can just say you used empirical evidence, without actually displaying any of it, and that counts as showing your work on the Internet. But I digress.) The gist: Diners were so engrossed in their phones, whether attempting to log onto WiFi, taking pics or just tooling around, that it’s applied a domino-effect drag to everyone and everything.
I don’t dispute that people use their phones more in public now than they did a decade ago. I definitely do. But the responses that the post garnered were interesting. Most all were variations on the same stance feather-hat forced upon me — that smartphones are making our lives worse by turning us into tech-addicted zombies incapable of embracing life’s simple pleasures.
But is that really the case?
Since everyone has a smartphone, it’s easy to blame smartphones for everything. We see a kid with his nose buried in a tiny screen at the park and shake our heads. Kids these days! They don’t play anymore. When I was his age, I stayed out until the streetlights came on! We see a young couple out to lunch, staring at their phones instead of each other, and we shake our heads. Goddamn millennials, I swear. We see a guy, alone at a bar, sipping a beer and scrolling through Twitter, and we shake our heads. Whatever happened to talking to each other? That’s just sad.
The phone is the easiest thing to “blame” in all these situations. After all, the device, the common denominator, is responsible for the child’s disconnection, the couple’s lack of communication and the bargoer’s introverted state, right? Maybe. Or it could be that the child’s parents are temporarily preoccupied, the couple’s angry at each other and the bargoer’s just not interested in small talk. Still, it’s easier to be judgmental and leer at these people like they’re the obese humans in hoverchairs from WALL-E, because it helps us feel superior and independent. Yeah, I got a phone — but I’m not a slave to it! I read books! Books made of paper, which is made of trees! Maybe you’ve heard of them?
Smartphones have become the scapegoat for every social issue we have, since everyone’s got phones and everyone’s got problems. I get it — there’s often truth there. But acting like phone use is nothing but negative has become a crotchety cliché, unproductive because it provides no solutions and ignores all the incredible day-to-day advantages smartphones give us — helping us find our way in New Orleans, to name just one.
I don’t need to sit here and cover all the cool shit you can do with your mobile, like that Apple spot with “Gigantic.” You already know. I just think we need to start giving each other a little more credit for being able to stash the things when it counts. That guy you see using his phone on the street doesn’t need your stoic intervention. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He might just be using his smartphone as intended — as a handy tool for life, not a replacement for it.
Follow @DrewLazor on Twitter.