At dinner the other night, I could've sworn I was eating in an Internet café and not a restaurant. At one point in the meal, everyone in my six-person group was furiously typing out a message to someone not at the table. We were social zombies, alone together. I wondered why we even bothered showing up, when eating alone at home would've had the same effect.
The restaurant staff seemed to be having the same issue as our table: In between taking wine orders and clearing tables, servers and busboys sneaked quick peeks at their phones. Restaurant managers, understandably, don't take kindly to this, creating a game of digital cat and mouse. Given the grip our phones have on our lives, how can we possibly un-tether ourselves?
A possible solution can be found in E.M. Forster's 1909 science fiction story "The Machine Stops," which provides an early vision to what today's mobile Web would become. He describes an uninhabitable Earth where people are confined to individual pods and provided all of their bodily needs via an omnipotent Machine. Instead of hunting and gathering, they devote time to communicating thoughts and ideas via the Machine's "speaking apparatus."
There's one key difference that stands out between Forster's century-old dystopian vision and how we live in 2013: His pods came equipped with an "isolation button," which turned off all communication save for one conversation, allowing the inhabitant to focus on the present.
This simple act of intimacy, focusing on one person or one conversation at a time, has largely been lost with the widespread adoption of smartphones. Family dinners are lost to email and teenage texting. Vacations, once the archetype of disconnection, are spent checking how many likes that horseback riding photo has garnered.
Smartphones are incredibly useful and convenient for navigating our lives, but the boundaries of their usefulness have been lost. In order to focus on the world in front of us instead of the world in our pockets and purses, we need an isolation button.
Disconnecting from our phones would help us reclaim space and time that's been eaten up by a stream of texts, calls and notifications. Imagine enjoying an evening at home free from the distraction of work email, or a date uninterrupted by someone retweeting the photo you just tweeted of the kale Caesar salad with pugliese croutons.
Unfortunately, deciding to disconnect is just half the battle. Truly "checking out" requires that your friends, family, and colleagues know that you're unreachable and to respect your privacy.
This is a big challenge when the purchase of many new phones comes with the condition of reachability attached. This may be the original sin of cellphone addiction. Companies give their employees phones with the implicit assumption that they always be reachable. Being "always on" is then seen as a badge of honor, locking employees in competition to send emails at the oddest possible hour of the night. Who hasn't received an inconsequential email at 3 in the morning? What ever happened to sleep, and to the great unicorn of work-life balance?
Unfortunately for us, "always on" now extends past the factory gates. Our social lives have been invaded by high expectations of communication. People who don't reliably respond to calls or text are tagged as flaky at best, and sketchy at worst. How does this leave any room for focusing on the present? Personal time and space seem to have evaporated into thin air.
Changing social norms to make disconnecting from our phones socially acceptable will take some work, but the benefits to be won are clear. Taking ownership of our time, rather than taking orders from a smartphone, will allow us time to think and roam free. Once un-tethered from the digital leash, we may find our self-induced ADD melting away. Our work, our friendships, our stress levels will all thank us.
We can own the upside of a smartphone's convenience without the downside of being always on call. I'm ready for an isolation button. Are you?
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