Recently I was at the hospital being treated for a torn rotator cuff while my public relations firm was frantically trying to reach me to schedule an interview with a national newspaper. When I got back to my office and my laptop, I found a series of increasingly frantic emails trying to reach me with news of the time sensitive opportunity. It was necessary, I concluded, to finally get a smartphone.

I had resisted for a long time, priding myself on being a neo-luddite, probably more so because my wife’s blackberry drives me crazy. It seems like all of our conversations are interrupted by Chris Brown’s singing announcement that she has mail.  We’ll be walking down the street together and I’ll realize that she’s no longer by my side, but has stopped to tap out a reply. No matter how eloquent I wax, his less than dulcet tones take precedence.

But it’s not just her, it’s everyone everywhere. In Manhattan, it appears that everyone now walks down the street either reading or tapping away, heedless of both pedestrians and traffic. Today, I watched in horror as a toddler, on one of those tricycles with a handle attached to the back, rolled toward Fifth Avenue while her mother obliviously tapped away twenty yards behind. Thankfully, the child was saved by a collision with a pretzel vendor.

What might visitors from other planets think of our strange obsession? If they happened to catch us viewing soft porn with our new iphone app, I’m sure they’d understand. But how would they make sense of our preoccupation with emails from work or text messages scheduling our next tennis match. Perhaps they’d conclude tapping a hand held device is erotic as well.

But this is a dangerous obsession we have. There was the well publicized case of the woman injured when she fell off a curb texting, and now we have a new study showing that texting while driving is twice as dangerous as driving under the influence, and it doesn’t even come with the pleasant warm feeling alcohol brings.

If perceptive, I’m sure visiting aliens would pick up on the fact that our smartphones are just a way for us to realize our deep-seated human need to maintain social relationships. It is to facilitate these relationships that our over-sized brains have evolved, and we owe our dominance as a species to the collective effort such relationships make possible. But our brains, as wonderful as they may be, are only capable of attending to one thing at a time, as John Medina has demonstrated so well.

So while we read or tap, we are unable to attend to everything else going on around us, including other people that are present in flesh and blood. My two young daughters don’t like my new “raspberry” as they call it, because “it makes you cranky, daddy.” Children want our undivided attention, and they get upset when they don’t get it.  They don’t care about our work, because nothing can be more important than them.

Adults are no different. We all want the attention of those we’re with. When it’s not forthcoming because the smartphone takes precedence, we are hurt and insulted. Yet somehow to many, it’s now socially acceptable to ignore those present in favor of those digital. A recent NYT article cited examples from both the business world and Washington, where smartphone use in meetings is not only seen as acceptable, but as an indicator of superior status.

Only those deficient in empathy could possibly think so, and it’s empathy that builds the relationships our collective effort depends on, whether at work or in the community as a whole. When we’re in a business meeting or walking down the streets of Manhattan, we need to attend to the people around us. Smartphone use, with or without the new iphone app, should be restricted to the privacy of our own space.


  1. Jeremy Allen  |  July 12th, 2009

    well said. two weeks ago i was at a lecture where the speaker said he has stopped carrying his iphone into most meetings, meals, and entertainment. being present with the people around us is, in his opinion, more important than staring into a glowing handheld screen while ignoring the people around us. i couldn’t agree more and have since started that practice and am more cheerful and enjoying the company of people around me.

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