In last summer’s issue of the Technoskeptic magazine, I reported on the results of a national visual survey I conducted of device use in public space, which comprised over 17,000 people in 29 locations in 18 metro areas. While results varied considerably depending on where the survey was done, in total nearly 28% of people walking down the street were occupied in some way with digital devices at any one time.
Of course, this problem—and I do believe having over a quarter of the population constantly distracted is a problem—has many facets. We have evidence of increases in anxiety and depression, road and pedestrian casualties, cyberbullying, delayed development, lowered attention spans, surveillance, toxic cultural memes, atrophying self-reliance, impatience, an inability to be bored, and a lack of presence. In other words, everything sucks more. But harder to account for is the opportunity cost—the things one would otherwise be doing if not for enacting obsessive mindless behaviors. What are you missing while you’ve been scanning Instagram?
The answer, in part, is relationships. This happens in the obvious way of substituting the virtual for the real, but it also happens in the more insidious way of degrading the actual relationships you already have. Face-to-face interactions are constantly undermined by the Swiss-cheese attention cultivated by the smartphone. Basic social skills like listening, consideration, and empathy are out the window when a globe-spanning library of multimedia entertainment, information, and instant communications are inviting constant disruption. Instead of sharing your own impressions and original thoughts you display photos, memes, and Wikipedia entries. Your phone says to those around you that they’re not your priority. Even just setting it on the table sends the message: This conversation is contingent. It is subject to interruption.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to reverse this toxic trend, when the smartphone ecosystem—with its algorithmically tailored addiction mechanisms—is designed to foil precisely the kind of insight, self-awareness, or discipline that would allow a person to break free of it. Consider that most of us are now remedial students in the school of social awareness. However awkward and arbitrary it may seem, we must actively curate time and space free from digital tech to reground ourselves. We have to relearn how to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others. We have to remember the joy of being disconnected, the calm, focus, and presence that are there for us whenever we turn the internet off.
That’s one reason my colleague Cori Mintzer and I started Analog Sundays at Shays Pub and Wine Bar in Harvard Square. The idea is hardly earth-shattering—just get a bunch of people socializing together who are all agreeing to set aside their devices for two hours. There isn’t a specific agenda or set of discussion topics. It’s quite simply an opportunity to do something that, until about a dozen years ago, was the birthright of every human—to interact socially with others, free from digital distraction.
Two hours a month is hardly enough to curtail a powerful digital addiction. You could think of it as simply a breather, an opportunity to have fun without the pressure of being always-on. Even better, think of it as a launching pad for a more intentional relationship to your own life. By paying attention to how your device use impacts your behavior, memory, mental health, and friendships, you can reawaken your intrinsic wisdom. Hopefully, with greater exposure to these moments, enough people will realize what has been lost due to our screen addiction that behaviors will begin to change and these spaces will proliferate. Your attention is a limited, zero-sum resource. Use it wisely.
We’ll have copies of the magazine, as well as pencils and paper—just in case you need to exchange digits or jot a note. And the record player will be out if you want to spin some vinyl. Relax, have something to eat or drink, and say hello to new friends. Bring your sparkling personality; leave your phone at home.
ANALOG SUNDAYS AT SHAYS PUB AND WINE BAR. 58 JFK ST., HARVARD SQUARE. NEXT ONE IS SUN 1.26, 3-5PM. MORE INFO AT THETECHNOSKEPTIC.COM.