Last night, walking through a restaurant, as I passed by about ten tables I noticed six where the diners had their smartphones sitting on the table as they ate. Some were deep in texting someone, others just had them out there, at the ready. Outside, there was a pair of people standing next to one another, clearly together, yet each busy texting someone else.
It reminded me of a piece I wrote about five years ago about those tiny screens we carry with us everywhere we go:
Skating over the holidays at New York’s Rockefeller Center, America’s skating rink, one can’t help noticing in the crowd of tourists and locals that everywhere someone is peering into a little screen in a gloved hand. A boy waiting in line one switchback ahead plays a Game Boy, pumping his fist after each tiny victory. Fellow tourists, armed with digital cameras, ask my group to take pictures of them with the gigantic New York City Christmas tree and the statue of Prometheus in the background.
Down on the ice, there is a dangerous clot of people obstructing traffic. Skating abandoned, they, too, are after shots of the tree. They stand shakily, arms outstretched, tiny viewscreens glowing. Skaters notice the hazard at the last moment. Some duck. Many slip, fall, or collide with other skaters. Everybody has a tiny helper, a gadget to enhance or capture the experience.
Does it help? Are people having more fun?
Since that time, the ubiquity of our tiny helpers, these screens, has increased. Everywhere we go, we have them by our side, at the ready. They used to be poised to capture the moment. Now they are ready for us to communicate with people we are not now with. It’s like every dinner party is really two conversations – the one I have with you, in front of me, and the one I am having, or ready to have, with my “peeps,” who are scattered far and wide.
I am as much a culprit of this as anyone else. And, it is important to note the upsides of this ubiquitous connection-to-elsewhere. At any given time, there can be a wide-ranging conversation going on, no matter where I am.
But, as with ubiquitous photo-taking, it’s easy to use our online connections to take us away from our present situation — to get out. There’s no bright line when it comes to that. At what point does a quick text at the table become ignoring your dinner date?
I try to have rules for myself. Not at the table. Not if I am in a one-on-one conversation. Not unless I ask first. These help, but still, sometimes they don’t seem like enough.
However, like most, I am not prepared to completely give up these constant connections. Modern social norms will simply have to catch up, which they have not yet done.
Over the next five years or so, I am certain we will see social norms and etiquette catch up. We’ll know when it is OK and when it is not. For now, though, it’s like the Wild West.