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Britta Gustafson: Places to unplug

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

A gaggle of teens quietly scrolling on their phones, sitting near one another yet unable to interact without a vice-device between them.

A toddler sitting in the stroller cruising down Daly Lane fixated on an iPad.

A mom and dad dining at Slice while their headphone-clad kids, faces aglow in blue light, chewing their gourmet pizza like cud munching cattle and staring blankly at screens.

A couple sitting on the sunny deck at Venga Venga, both trying to stealthily sneak a peek at the phones in their respective laps, while trying to feign interest in the person they’re sitting with. I notice this while the person I’m with takes a phone glance and their expression goes blank. Nod as they may, our conversation is lost.

We’ve all seen similar versions of these scenarios, probably many times. I’ve looked up from time to time, at the bank, grocery store, post office, at the bus stop, on the gondola, you name it, to behold everyone around me preoccupied by the grip of a screen. I think we must look like zombies to anyone not assimilated into the new smartphone way of life that almost seems like a wide-spread, culturally acceptable addiction. And I think I should get my phone out and document this (wink).

Now perhaps I’m particularly excitable when it comes to this subject; it even rivals road trips and car karaoke on my personal passion scale. But I guess I’m addicted to this topic. I’m fascinated by watching what could be our own self-destruction happening before my eyes. It’s like living in an episode of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone.”

But I dial it back because I can hardly go a day without my own phone. Admittedly, I too am hooked. It’s become an appendage that I can scarcely imagine life without.

Are we reaching the point of no return when real life and virtual life are coexisting in different planes but in equal time? We are so obsessed that there is now a word to describe the fear of being without your phone: “nomophobia.”

I was particularly transfixed the other night, marveling at a group of diners who sat down at a 10-seater near me at the Village Tavern. With children ranging in age from about 7 to 17, they situated themselves and each, adults and kids alike, proceeded to pull out devices and all but one began to scroll and peck away. But over at the bar all the regulars sat chatting, collectively watching ski-TV, coming and going. The soundscape was lively. Yet there, in the middle of the room, sat a table of people silently sitting round their food, each tuned into a different screen. Not a sound, save the clinking of silverware, came from their direction. I guess it might seem peaceful? One flashed a glance over at my table where my own kids and their five cousins chattered their way through our meal. And I wondered, with genuine curiosity, did he believe that my children as well ought to be quietly lulled by a screen as they ate?

Technology at the table is a tangy topic. My instinct tells me that phones should not be present at restaurant or home tables, and that we should appreciate our meals in the company of friends and family. But I am as guilty as any of sending or receiving multiple texts throughout an occasional meal. I justify it by telling myself that I’m only able to have that lunch date because my iPhone gives me the freedom to work outside of an office, even if it keeps me virtually on call all hours and everywhere.

And I’ve been in the situation with young kids where I just want to shovel a few forkfuls of food into my mouth while trying to enjoy interesting but uninterrupted conversations with friends, hoping to get the heck out of there before the kids get too antsy. So I can see when a screen might have dramatically changed the experience.

Even when I’m dining solo and I grab an incoming call and try to whisper-talk, I wonder, was it disrespectful to the people around me? To my server? To the cooks who spent time preparing my meal?

Screens during meals probably rob us of opportunities to improve our communication skills, storytelling and making jokes, as well as continuing to help us develop patience, mindful peace and to even exercise our imaginations.

Fundamentally, it seems we all benefit from more human connections, not less. Restaurants, recreation centers, schools, bus rides, most jobs, games, even “social” interactions were all once done without screens and now they are filled with them.

While we have gained some advantages, including new connections, haven’t we lost something as well?

Bombarded by bells, buzzes and chimes that alert us to messages we feel compelled to view and respond to immediately, are we disconnecting from what really matters? Are we losing touch with what makes us feel nourished and grounded; what makes us human beings?

In “The World Unplugged Project,” investigators at the University of Maryland reported that “a clear majority” of students from 10 different countries across the globe experienced actual distress when they tried to go without their devices for 24 hours. One in three people in the study admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.

Without open spaces and downtime, how will we create, connect and feel alive?

Even computers reboot. Perhaps we should all find some places to knowingly, willingly unplug. Mine will definitely include restaurants.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.


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