Tiny Glowing Screens

And when the sun burns out
We’ll light the world with tiny glowing screens
Tiny glowing screens, glowing screens

-Tiny Glowing Screens, Part 1
by Watsky

A stocking frame is a long way from a modern smart phone. It was a kind of a wooden knitting machine invented in 1589 by William Lee near Nottingham, England. It was one of the first machines to replace human workers in the textile industry, but far from the last. The first stocking frames, while doing the work of hand knitters, did a fairly crude job. They would be refined over the next couple of centuries and by 1850 there were a quarter of a million power looms in England, each doing the work of 40 or 50 workers and often operated by children. As with the remarkable rise of the iPhone, not everyone was sanguine about this development. There were people who liked to weave fabric, or more precisely, had worked their whole lives to get good at it so that they could make a living.

In 1799 such a man named Ned Ludd was fed up enough to take a sledge hammer to a couple of these stocking frames in a futile but symbolic gesture akin to John Henry and the steam drill. Others who shared his ideas and fears took to smashing looms and stocking frames, too. These “frame-breakers” soon became known as Luddities, a term which lives on today to describe people who fear and oppose technology. I’m trying to decide if I’m a Luddite.

Bleary-eyed and not yet fully capable of rational thought I climbed aboard the hotel van at the Holiday Inn Philadelphia at 5:00 AM the other day (which I will remind all you Central Time Zone dwellers is really 4:00 AM.) It is customary on such journeys, particularly at 4:00 AM, for crews to be somewhat taciturn. Later showtimes will often call for conversation. We trade stories and grievances about airline life, the dreaded scheduling department, unions, and management. Pilots are notorious complainers (witness the famous old joke: Q: What is the difference between a pilot and a jet engine? A: The jet engine stops whining when you reach the gate.) It is enjoyable and sometimes informative to talk to other crews and get their point of view on recent events in the industry or occasionally a joke such as the one above. Sometimes we talk about favorite layovers, good restaurants, hotels with generous breakfasts, and sights worth seeing.

But this morning there was no talk, not one peep among the seven persons comprising the van-load. And despite the early hour these aviation professionals were not cat-napping on the way to the airport. They were, each and every one of them, except me, looking at their tiny glowing screens. What they looked at or thought about or communicated I could not say. Some seemed transfixed by a single image or text and stared at it relentlessly. Others flipped madly from page to page. Some typed away with their muscular thumbs. All were entranced to the point that we almost drove off and left one of the other crew’s flight attendants.

I would like, here, to portray myself as something of a hero, a defender of the cherished traditions of human interaction through speech. But the truth is that I had already spent 15-20 minutes in my hotel room staring at my own little glowing screen and gathering “information” about my flights for the day, the weather, and, of course, the latests comings and goings of one Mr. Donald Trump. I watched these digital slaves in the van with a sense of superiority, like a teetotaler looking down his nose at the local sot; but I was little better.

So, is texting the death of small talk? If so, do we care? Is there still merit in talking to people other than your friends and family? Do we gain by the conversation of our seat mate on the airplane, in the van, in line at the theater, in church? Will humanity fall into chaos if we text a few lines to our windbag coworker instead of talking to him for an hour on the phone? For truly the little glowing screens are an escape. They are an escape from the demands of civilization, from the boring and the foreign and the scary. When we are waiting in a queue at the airport or for the bus or at the DMV we are in a state of suspended animation. We are bored and perhaps we are lonely. Anthropologist Amber Case says, “People in lines have been put on pause and the thing that reconnects them to some sort of humanity is to look at their phones.” True enough, but people have always waited in lines and people have always dealt with that boredom in different ways. One would like to say, “well, in my day we talked to other people.” But to be honest we didn’t, always. Bored people who had been put “on pause” read a book, looked at a newspaper, or did a crossword puzzle. These are all anti-social activities akin to looking at one’s phone. And in a way “looking at the phone” is a less anti-social activity than reading a book because in many cases the person in question is communicating with someone, just not someone here.

In the local context, looking at the phone is exactly like putting up a barrier and if you are in close proximity, perhaps even alone with, someone looking at his or her phone it can be rather alienating. It is hard not to take the person’s devotion to his little glowing screen as a sort of insult to the real living breathing person in the same room. So if a phone can keep us connected to those we love, it at the same time, separates us from the world of interesting people around us. It encourages clannishness and I can’t help thinking it reinforces the polarization we increasingly find in this country, socially and politically. These are feedback loops and they amplify our biases and opinions. We talk to the people we like and who think like us and block out the voices who sound different.

Here is where I think the little glowing screens do us some harm. “Small talk,” for lack of a better word, is good. It does benefit us. Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had were with people sitting next to me on airplanes. In that “phone-free” venue people sometimes share thoughts and ideas which would not be shared in the gate area where everyone is busy texting their friends.

I offer another 5:00 AM example. A Flight crew is picked up at a Hotel in Peoria, Illinois for a taxi ride to the airport. The crew says hello to the driver as they approach the taxi. She, preoccupied by texting on her cell phone, says nothing. The driver allows all passengers to load their own bags in the rear of the taxi. She settles into the driver’s seat and continues to text. The driver is visibly irritated to find that the Flight Attendant has failed to get the rear door latched properly and grudgingly gets out to re-close it, texting all the while. To her credit the driver does not text while driving, although I have seen this on numerous occasions with hotel van drivers and taxi drivers. When they reach the airport the driver leaves the taxi only to open the rear door but then stands by and texts while said crew removes their own suitcases.

The average modern traveler will attest that this recitation is a true and accurate representation of life today. The names of businesses or “associates” may change, but the omnipresence of the cell phone and its role as a palpable barrier between people cannot be denied. On its face it is difficult to assess whether this localized “rudeness” results in a net loss in civility in the world. For all I know our taxi driver may well have been communicating something very important. It is possible that she is a key player in a charity organization that helps the homeless. Maybe she was coordinating important scheduling or maintenance information with her company to facilitate other customer’s experience. Or maybe it was an emergency. All of these are possible, but not plausible. We all know who she was texting at 5:00 AM, if not the name of the person, then the category into which they fall; friends or family. And is this wrong?

The reason that sociological study is so difficult is that it is hard to establish a baseline. Are people ruder than they used to be? Is texting with your friend truly an insult to others? If the taxi driver gives us less of herself, perhaps she is therefore giving someone else more. Is her friendship or kinship strengthened at the cost of irritating a few “customers?” Surely her boss would object. I know we did.

A man doing a crossword puzzle at the airport may be doing so for entertainment. He may have no other agenda than to fill boring “pause” time with mentally stimulating activity. I have seen times, though, when a magazine or book or crossword was used as an intentional barrier, kind of a “do not disturb” sign. These barriers are effective. Cell phones are even more so. I have observed, in cities with a high load of panhandlers, that one of the surest ways not to be approached by a panhandler is to pretend to talk or text on your cell phone. This is fascinating to me. The idea that someone who has the effrontery to walk up and ask you for money will be deterred because he doesn’t want to interrupt your cell phone conversation is interesting. Panhandlers will approach two people talking on the street and interrupt their conversation. They will interrupt a man reading a newspaper. The cell phone, somehow, acts as a more definitive barrier.

I blame cell phones for destroying the valuable social interaction of strangers in public places. We can’t very well “reason together” as the Book of Isaiah suggests if we are playing Words with Friends with friends. Texting is all too often a way of blocking others out more than it is a way of communicating.

So, I hate cell phones. The problem is I love my cell phone. This is not exactly a contradiction. We all love our dogs and hate other people’s dogs. Congress’ approval rating is 14% according to Politifact, but 95% of Congressmen were re-elected in 2014. We love our own congressman but we think everyone else’s congressman is a scoundrel. This is not about the cell phone or dog or congressman in question then; it is about us. It is about human nature. My theory is that we all suffer from a prima donna complex. The things we do and say and think about are important. What others do and say and think about are abstractions, at best. The problem, if there is one, is not in the technology but in the people who operate it.

When I was seven years old my parents were dogged by a tenacious encyclopedia salesperson. I was far too young to remember, or understand the subtlety of her sales pitch. Perhaps she thrilled them with tales of inaugurations thirty years hence. Maybe she applied liberal amounts of guilt, contrasting for them their children’s education with the extravagant central air unit we ultimately did without for ten more years. I believe guilt was the right motivator to separate my thrifty mother from her money as the only thing in my Mom’s psyche surpassing her frugality is her selflessness. Perhaps she feared for my immortal soul, worried that I would end up in jail, or perhaps law school, without this intervention. Whatever the woman said obviously worked because our family was soon the proud owner of a complete set of 1975 World Book Encyclopedias.

Whether my mother would today conclude that the purchase was economically sound I cannot say. There have been no inaugurations as yet. Whether my father’s ten year dearth of air conditioning was assuaged by seeing his sweaty little boy read about stink beetles and comets is hard to determine. I can say, with conviction, that those 26 brown faux leather books did change my life. They made me whatever I am today and I thank my Mom and Dad for foregoing the air conditioner.

The owner of a set of 1975 World Book Encyclopedias was allowed to drink from a fountain of knowledge that children of the internet age cannot now appreciate. Information which is available today in 4 nanoseconds required a drive across town to that receptacle of human knowledge called a library, an arduous search through a medieval torture device known as a card catalog, a trudge through a dank, moldering labyrinth of shelves clutching in your hopeful hand a piece of scrap paper bearing the cryptic symbols 123.657 LGA scrawled with a broken stubby pencil, and then the withering look of a horn-rimmed harpy whose intimidating glare made the Wizard of Oz look like the man behind the curtain.

My World Books avoided all that. I had this fountain of knowledge in my own house and I drank from it daily. I would often pick a letter at random and sit down in a comfy chair or on the foot of my bed and enter the world of the World Book much as a boy today might Google googol. My mind flitted alphabetically from topic to topic; aardvarks in Africa, The Ancient Mariner and his Albatross, Armstrong, Neil and Apollo. In this way I developed a mind full of trivia. I learned a little about a lot. But the World Book made me fall in love with the World. It opened up to me vistas that I could not see with my own eyes. I read it from cover to cover to cover and I am consequently condemned to be fascinated by everything. I want to know three succinct paragraphs about the universe.

Little did I or anyone else know that my beloved World Books would be surpassed by many orders of magnitude. Our children are growing up in a world where all human knowledge is available in the palm of their hand. They do not have to drive to the library. They do not have to look through a card catalog. They do not have to send away for more information. How can this not be a good thing?

Amber Case studies human interaction with technology. She calls herself a Cyborg Anthropologist because of her hypothesis that glowing screens and the internet therein constitute a sort of extra brain which we carry around with us. We are half-human, half-robot. She says, “Mental tools extend what our brains can do. Our phone is our mental exoskeleton.” And Cyborgs are, mostly, stronger than humans. We are better for having all human knowledge in the palm of our hands, obviously. But there may be a price for this, too. Case makes the argument that we can get too enraptured by our knowledge and technology, much as I got absorbed to the point of distraction by my World Books. A fine example of this can be found on You Tube. Simply type in “Texting man walks into a bear.”

What may be lost is “down time” and I would argue “small talk.” Case says, “People aren’t taking time for mental reflection. When you have no external input that is the time when there is creation of self. Then you can figure out who you really are.” How does she deal with this overload? “I take road trips and use paper maps,” she says.

Which reminds me of an anecdote of my own. I was standing in a store in the Mall of America with my son (A girl’s clothing store. We boys were obviously “on pause”). I was looking at a road map of Minnesota and trying to cipher out a route to escape Minneapolis with minimal frustration. I was approached by a young sales clerk (maybe 19) who stared in wonder at my map. “Is that what I think it is,” she said, “I didn’t think anybody used maps anymore.” I was tempted to retreat into the old person’s mantra “well in my day, young lady…..” But I didn’t. I showed her the map and we talked about the area and she pulled out her “map app.” She actually had some good ideas for getting back to the highway. And it wasn’t that she didn’t know what a map was, or that she didn’t use maps.

The thing is: maps are different today and in many ways they are better. Encyclopedias are better, too. And we can still talk to each other today, even about maps. We just need to take the time to do it. So I guess I won’t take a sledge hammer to my iPhone. There may be some good to come from it. Rest in peace Ned Ludd.

by: Dustin Joy