Real Presences

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2013/12/real-presences/
smart phone

Hidden Springs Lane. What’s the deal with Smart Phones? Go to any public gathering and most of the young people (and some of the not-so-young) are clearly more interested in their phones than they are with you. Now right off the bat, you are no doubt thinking “not another cranky screed from a grouchy middle-ager who can’t figure out how to work an iPhone or who is holding out on the pleasure just to be contrary” (which is a regular occupation for grouchy middle-agers). Rather than being simply grouchy, however, I’d like to consider some of the implications of our cultural obsession with that small screen in our pockets.

Some places seem to warrant a smart phone. Airports, for instance, seem well-suited to these devices. Airports are placeless places where no one wants to be. No one travels to an airport; we use airports to get somewhere else. Thus, it seems natural (if I can use that word in the context of our modern technologies) to ignore the non-place of an airport by means of a device that is perfectly designed to help us ignore the place we where we are. By means of these devices we can also ignore the strangers around us and, perhaps, stay in contact with those we know and love (assuming we use our phone to talk or text with them rather than watch videos on YouTube or play a game).

But what happens when the device crops up in real places and in the presence of real people we know? Recently I was at a restaurant where I saw an attractive couple sitting across from each other. They were both staring at their phones, completely absorbed in another world, oblivious to each other, and, frankly, appearing somewhat bored. Were they on a date? What kind of relationship were they cultivating? What was happening on their little screens that was more interesting than the person sitting before them? Maybe it was a lousy blind date and both knew it. But I wonder.

Surely there are times and places where these devices should be shut down and left behind, but I’m not sure there is any clear consensus on when and where that should be. Do family gatherings deserve our full attention? Well, I suppose that depends on the family, but it seems like the default position should be in favor of flesh and blood. How about a dinner party? Should the host or hostess be miffed if you regularly check your phone and “discretely” send texts under the table? Do you owe your attention to the other guests? Are there duties that attend accepting a dinner invitation, one of which is to give full attention to the proceedings? Do modern lovers shut down their devices to make love or are they perpetually half present, always listening for the friendly chirp that sets the imagination to wondering if that which is waiting in the virtual world is better than the present, embodied reality? I wonder.

So there are several layers here. The first is etiquette. Surely we all recognize (or should recognize) that there are certain places and times when the devices should be put away. A serious conversation? A formal dinner? Holy communion? However, as our technologies become more closely interfaced with our senses (Google Glass is just the beginning) will the lines become less clear? Perhaps our expectations for etiquette will simply shift to accommodate this new way of being, where the present embodied reality will blur with the virtual world that we are continually striving toward. Will anything be lost? What will be gained?

What makes us prefer the virtual over the real? Is it perpetual possibility? Is it curiosity never sated because contact is always deferred? Is it the false but alluring promise that the potential perfection is preferable to the imperfect people and places all around us? Doesn’t pornography consist of this very dynamic?

In an important way, embodiment is a central issue to this discussion. As embodied creatures it would seem that embodied encounters should be our default mode; however, it seems as if many are quite willingly exchanging the primacy of embodiment for a “reality” that leaves actual bodies behind. But does reading a book do anything different? I can escape the present by means of a book just as I can escape by means of a smart phone. Strange, though, how ubiquitous the device has become. Something about it is more alluring, more persistent in its beckoning, than a book. Perhaps it is the speed of movement whereby we can flit from one image to the next, one topic to another, with no continuity, rationality, or commitment. Our technology allows us to be promiscuous in our attention.

Even the ubiquity of texting over talking seems to indicate a strange preference for digital communication over voiced communication. Voices, human voices that is, are the direct product of embodiment. In a particular voice we can hear the distinct variations and characteristics that indicate the person “behind” the voice. We can hear the pitch, the tremor, the irritation. We can even hear a smile. We humans are vocal creatures, and our voices are the primary means by which we communicate ideas, affections, feelings, and aspirations. By-passing voiced communication by means of text messaging may not be a big deal unless we come to prefer the one over the other. That is, unless we come to use texts as a means to avoid encountering another voice. Doing so would seem to represent one more step in our retreat from embodiment.

But in my self-satisfied smugness, perhaps I am not as innocent as I pretend. I am sitting with my laptop, typing away, checking email whenever I hear the happy sound alerting me that a new message has arrived in my inbox. I tell myself that I’m not like those youngsters with the smart phones, but my laptop distracts me, enthralls me, in ways not unlike a smart phone. I tell myself that working from home, sitting on a couch, allows me to be present, but does it really? I attend to the screen while four beautiful children and their beautiful mother inhabit the background, only partially seen or heard. What opportunities am I missing? What am I teaching them about my priorities?

For this New Year, a resolution: embrace real presences. Turn off the distractions. Give full attention to the people who matter most. Speak, listen, attend. Oh, I know we can’t completely free ourselves from our technology. But we can take control of it. We can make it our docile servant, one that we use for work and then shut off so we can return to the real world. To the everyday world that is anything but, for in the everyday world mysteries abound if we only have eyes to see. Beauty, truth, love, laughter, and tears: these are the essence of a human life. These are the very things we so easily miss when we fail to attend to the real presences all around us.

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