I've never been a smoker, but I'd like to think that what I've seen from my smoker friends has given me enough of a window into the relationship that they have with their cigarettes.
They have a habit of impatiently twiddling their fingers, an anxiety for which the only salve seems to be a firm grasp on their pack of cigarettes and to politely excuse themselves before retreating to a designated smokers' area. If we happen to be somewhere that smoking is allowed, they light up and shut themselves off from socializing until their cigarette has burned out.
Sounds an awful lot like how many of us behave when it comes to our smartphones, doesn't it?
There's the same, ceaseless desire to reach into our pockets to check our text messages, emails, Facebook and Twitter feeds lest we fall out of the loop for 10 whole minutes. There's the same social black hole that forms when we're doing so, often when we're in the middle of conversations with other people physically present. And it's not until we answer that email or text, are updated on someone's social media status or look up an inane "Did you know?" fact that's been nagging us that we return to the world of the conversationally competent.
An addiction to cigarettes threatens to do significant damage to one's physical health. When it comes to smartphone addiction, it's our social health that we should worry about.
"You just need an ability to be yourself and no be doing something," Louis C.K. explained to Conan O'Brien last September. "That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there ... That's being a person."
Whereas a cigarette addict craves nicotine, smartphone addicts crave something to fill those moments of "forever empty," as Louis C.K. called it. Those idle moments when we're overcome by a fatalistic feeling that "it's all for nothing and you're alone." What does it say about our devolving social habits that we're starting to treat the time we spend with others as one of those idle moments? Why do we need the reassurance of being plugged-in to not feel alone even if we're surrounded by other people?
It's starting to cost us the ability to just sit there and engage in conversation. An actual, honest-to-goodness conversation without smartphone-induced interruptions every 10 minutes. An honest-to-goodness conversation where the only interruption is when other people arrive, say "Hi" and join in.
For the most part, we've started to wean ourselves off of cigarettes, armed with the knowledge that it was the nicotine telling us that we needed to smoke. Now it's time to similarly wean ourselves off of smartphones when it comes at the expense of our social interactions. It's when we stop depending on them to make ourselves feel less alone that we can actually look up and acknowledge anyone and everyone who's around us, rendering that feeling harmlessly moot.