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Beneath the Glass

21 July, 2015 (10:26) | Media, New Media, Social Commentary, Technology

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I remember this moment where I was standing on the edge of a car accident watching people be loaded and lifted into the ambulance, watching the tears streaming down the faces of uninjured bystanders and the stern glares of police and emergency workers as I darted back and forth trying to capture it all. I glanced over the viewfinder and took in the scene without the distance of the camera clutched in my hands. There was no focus on the lens, no technical details I needed to consider, no framing. I paused, I breathed, and I watched.

And then I ducked once more and began snapping anew.

There have been plenty of people who have argued that cameras allow distance from the experience. I know I became so focused on recording my experiences when traveling, I had to remind myself to actually have the experiences as well. I no longer travel with a camera because of that. Well, that and the fact that my camera is beat to hell and doesn’t even qualify as the trailing edge of technology at this point.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of escaping to Northern Colorado with a wonderful collection of friends. I’m only tertiarily related to the crew, as the main impetus was a reunion of a sort and I’m old friends with the spouse of one alum, yet I love spending time with these people.

Still, over the course of the few days we were there together, I was struck by how everyone, including myself, gravitated toward these moments of solitude together, staring at our phones, our thumbs flicking away. For me, it was primarily my obsession with Words with Friends, reading comics or checking email. For many of the others, it was the constant photos and maintenance of said photos.

I love the fact that my friends want to take photos and commemorate the moment. I also appreciate that all of us spent time attached to our screens. When we didn’t have our phones up, there was no question we were engaged with each other, enjoying jokes, stories, conversation, and the pleasant surroundings; yet I wonder if everyone else disengaged in the same way I do when my phone appears in my hand and that small glowing screen pulls me out of the moment.

My last relationship being long distance, I spent a great deal of moments sneaking my phone up at points when I likely shouldn’t. It wasn’t the same level of disengagement as I loved having her constant presence and even when my phone wasn’t open or up, I would consider our most recent messages and formulate replies and questions. It was a peppering of usage, one she often pointed out stating, “you’re much better at multitasking than I am.” To me, however, I never felt neglectful of those around me by pulling my phone out (but perhaps I’m wrong about that), and it was only when I could rationalize her being as much or greater a priority than the other tasks around me.

During our games, our conversations, our hikes, our meals this past weekend, phones would appear, snap a photo or two and disappear. Cries of “Oh my god! It’s so pretty!” would be immediately followed by glowing screens and tapping fingers. In the moment, this rarely perturbed me, but in retrospect, I wonder how things might feel different without the technology.

In the morning, I would wake long before the others, slap some earbuds in and make coffee, listening to podcasts while I drew or wrote. When the others finally rose, my earbuds and phone would be cast aside at my earliest convenience. And yet my hand would gravitate toward my pocket every time I saw someone else casually flicking their screen, scrolling through their email or social media. Sometimes, I consciously resisted; others, I pulled out my phone, unlocked my screen, and did a quick check of all that didn’t matter.

Every year on my birthday I turn off the world. This year, I failed at that. I had spent the previous day with friends and was slowly driving back and needed my phone for navigation. It was a good thing too, as 2/3rds of the way home, I realized I had forgotten things and was forced to turn around.

The reason I disconnect, as I’ve stated previously, is because the flood of contact wears on me. On most days of the year, I have a handful of messages and that’s all. On my birthday, every Facebook acquaintance, distant relative, and business seem to want my attention, and it’s overwhelming. This year, as I drove home, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. I felt unadulterated anger and fear constantly, worried I had forgotten something else, only to find it was just another happy birthday wish. The moment I arrived at my final destination, I shut down my phone, but I still felt on edge for hours after. Despite several invites to join others for activities, I ended up staying in, neither seeing nor talking to anyone, happy to finally be left to my solitude.

It’s almost an irony that on my birthday, this shirking of technology allows me to be alone. Any other day of the year, pulling my phone out actually provides the same experience, only I’m disconnecting from the world around me, be it a loud and crowded bar or a virtual break from work.

One of the great ironies of my journey to the mountains was that my close high school friend through whom I know everyone was one of the last people I know who used his cell phone to text or connect. He remains one of the few people I know who isn’t on Facebook. I remember his bittersweet dismay at taking up texting when his relationship with his now wife got serious. In high school, we gamed heavily on the computer, and he still works in IT, yet he prefers to spend his free time free of screens and technology.

I, on the other hand, am glued to technology, and, outside of writing or gaming, it simply seems to frustrate and bother me. With my camera, the solution was giving it up. With my phone, it can’t be that easy. I don’t know of a good solution, as my phone is my connection to school, work, and friends. Perhaps scheduling times I can use it or leaving it behind more often or just turning it off.

Then again, the next time I find myself in a relationship, maybe I’ll feel the need to prioritize it in the same way, once more letting my emotions drag me into the gateway that is my phone.

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  • Julia Goolia

    <3 I know exactly what you mean!!

  • Mitch

    Good post – some possible tips that have helped me:

    1) You have a choice on social media to make your birthday private from friends (not companies, though). Doing so could curb some of your annual frustration.

    2) Blocking off 30mins to an hour each day (or even every other day depending on your schedule) to log into social media, check email, and respond to texts messages could help alleviate the need to constantly check feeds and see what’s new (if anything) in news, friends, etc. If you make it a routine of some sort, you won’t feel the constant pressure to be jacked into the grid.

    3) Instead of using your phone as a device for “everything”, you could try to compartmentalize your tech-use. In other words, only check social media when you are at a desktop, or only use your phone for calling and texting – opting out of email and news updates.

    4) If you can manage it, going off-grid (including gaming) for 2 hours each night before going to bed. Alternatives to tech: reading a hardcopy book, journaling, mind-dumping (making to-do lists), stretching, meditation. This is one I am still working on, but the first 3 have really helped me so far.

  • Ben

    Your last suggestion is definitely my favorite and one I need to do better at implementing it. Oddly, the movement away from alarm clocks to using my phone for an alarm has made this more difficult. Checking my alarms often means I get caught up in my phone. I also read a lot on my phone, especially comics. I’m thinking that in my next cleanup/rearrangement of my room, I’ll get an actual alarm clock out again and start leaving my phone charging in another room overnight.

    This definitely flows into your third suggestion of dividing devices. Sadly, part of the reason why phones have become so necessary is that work requires me to be on email, and the slow death of my older devices (see desktop/laptop) make device division more costly and difficult.

    I like your second suggestion of limiting my social media use, and, in general, I’m on Facebook less than 10 minutes a day already, the exception being that I’m emailed when I get a note or do join an active conversation and that’s fine. Google+ I spend more time on, simply because it’s a NewsFeed. I’m more struggling to get back into the things I was into before as alternatives to screens: music, sports, playing in my non-existent backyard. Struggling with passion is one of my prime philosophical realms right now. It’s easier to collect and read a variety of things on my devices, makes less mess, and I still love gaming as a hobby. Those are tough things to give up or move away from.

    Though Facebook is certainly the prime offender when it comes to the birthday deluge, I really dislike the idea that people only care when they “have to,” so unless I can privatize my birthday from the world, just hiding it on Facebook is not enough of a solution for me, though it is a reasonable suggestion.