Togetherness Interruptus: Civil Society in the Age of the Smartphone

Every business and government speaks of "civil society" on a regular basis. It is the euphemism for engaging with the nonprofit world. But there is another meaning for the phrase "civil society." It means being civil to one's neighbors and strangers on the street, and nurturing a social environment -- in real time and space, not on an electronic device. One of the most troubling default behaviors that we have recently come to accept is that most of us (myself included) spend less and less time staring into space and pondering our thoughts or the universe or imagining great romps with our beloveds. No, we're looking at our phones which we clutch as we walk down the street, talking or texting obliviously while running into people and vehicles.

A recent study from the journal Science showed how far people will go to avoid sitting with their own thoughts:

In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.

This is decidedly addictive behavior. And like all addictions, the addict is not the only victim. Smartphones create a terribly discourteous, antisocial, particularly uncivil environment in public spaces. Look around. Someone might need your help and you might want to offer it. Someone might be reading a book you would love to talk about. Someone is wearing an outfit that is intriguing, cool or beautiful. Architecture, street posters, buskers, amazing events, all abound.

But our smartphone keeps the world at bay. Recently, at a bus stop on Fifth Ave., three seats (for the elderly and infirm) were taken by two people who needed the seats and one 30-something woman enraptured by her phone as if it was her newborn. Directly in front of her was a woman who looked about 90 and another who looked about 75. Yet this young woman kept her seat because she had NO idea of her surroundings. I debated intervening, but I stood there while this very elderly woman was standing unnecessarily. I felt awful, but I had intervened in a similar situation on a bus the day before, and the father of the ten year old I had suggested relinquish his seat said to me, "Who are you, the civility police?"

If not each of us, then who?

On the bus and above-ground subways in the past week, I have heard in detail about....stock transactions, hospital/doctor problems of someone's sister, food at restaurants and what's for dinner (a dozen times), he did cheat, she didn't cheat, she doesn't love me, I do love him, tutoring prices, vacation plans, and other conversations too boring and annoying to recount. Talking in a whisper and/or covering your mouth is the exception and not the rule, which is utterly discourteous.

Father and son together. Father on phone (talking about job -- trouble with a customer), and son on his game...with the sound on. In what universe is it considered acceptable to inflict their nerve-jangling electronic bells, whistles, bangs, onto everyone within hearing distance?

Smartphone abuse is not only rude, it's dangerous. Walking down the streets of NYC, people are texting, looking at their phones and running into others because just as you cannot drive and text you cannot really walk and text either. I have personally saved two people's lives from being killed as they walked in front of oncoming traffic while texting. I literally grabbed each of them and pulled them back from their ill fates.

All electronic devices are powerful hypnotics, perhaps most memorably when two Northwest pilots on their laptops were out of contact with air controllers for an hour and a half and overshot their destination by 150 miles - despite being pinged numerous times as fighter jets were being scrambled to intercept their plane. And new studies show increased danger and accidents for children, despite apparent adult supervision, as parents and caregivers are distracted from their kids by their smartphones. This is dangerous but also decidedly not quality time with children. These devices are incredibly seductive -- and addictive.

It is insensitive and emotionally alienating to have your phone disrupt social, public and family settings -- but it has become the norm. At restaurant tables everywhere, people have their smartphones out. And many many people check their messages/email/texts regularly in order to get that little dopamine hit. Yesterday afternoon on a train, the couple next to me were talking; she was speaking intimately about her recently departed grandmother. He left the conversation to read an incoming text, replied to it, and began talking about the text rather than Grandma. His wife was crestfallen that he wasn't listening to her heartfelt grief. This man appeared to adore his wife, and did not intend to be hurtful. But he was.

Togetherness interruptus is bad for all of us. Be here now.