Last night the beloved and I were out for a quick dinner on a lovely spring evening. We were talking about our day, and I asked her what time it was. She said she had no idea. Then she remembered she had an IPhone.
At a nearby table, a man and a woman were relaxing and having a drink. He had his feet up on the chair near him and was engrossed in the video screen on his phone. The woman managed to keep up a conversation with him, but he seldom made eye contact with her.
Two couples, one with little to no attention to the digital world, the other with that world squarely in the center.
Are either of them more virtuous?
This morning I received notice from a Facebook friend of a NYT article on the evils pitfalls of social networking, with the implication that, because of all our electronic communication devices, we are engaging less and less in one-on-one human face-to-face interactions (the "flight from conversation").
I read this article with a combination of skepticism and sympathy. On the one hand, I fully believe we are being distracted and dehumanized by video screens. On the other, I think we are not being changed much at all.
I believe that, from time immemorial, we have neglected to listen to the people next to us. It's just that, now, we have a more visible way of ignoring them.
I don't believe that there are that many of us who would rather noodle on a phone or laptop if we are really and truly interested in what the other person is saying.
Problem is, few of us are that compelling to our acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. We can be quite boring, in fact.
I say this as an experienced insider on the paying attention front lines. After all, I am a teacher.
I know when my students are interested. Their heads are up, eyes focused on me or someone else who is speaking. If they are taking notes, they're on topic. They themselves have opinions and other contributions. They react to the speaker with laughter, oohs and ahhs, booing, and other outbursts.
I know when I have held my students' attention. Someone will say, "Wow. This class went fast."
Could I compete successfully with cell phones? No. Thankfully, they are banned from my classroom. But I know that people-- adolescents, even-- pay attention when it is worthwhile to them.
The question of video screens or not in everyday interactions comes down to politeness. Given that we are always reconsidering whether to listen to someone or not, video screen or not, it is always more polite to put away the video screen and give the impression we are listening, even if our minds are in La-La land.
Way back in the dark ages, maybe 2004, I was in my office and my student assistant was training me on an instant messaging program. I had my desktop computer, and she had her laptop, and we were blessed with wireless Internet. Suddenly there was a chime on my computer. I had received an instant message. It was my assistant. I wrote her back and we had a virtual conversation while in the same room.
It was great fun. She was paying attention to me, and I to her.
The world is not going downhill because of electronics. It may be going downhill-- or downhill faster-- because we are not teaching children manners.
If I am out at a restaurant with the beloved, I never stare at video screens. That is, unless there is a TV just above me and my favorite team just scored a touchdown. I am just that virtuous.
Image from here.