“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” or so David Carr seemed to say. In his latest NY Times op-ed, “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking To You,” Carr rallies the troops once more to the cause of civility in a digital age. The battle has been raging for some time and some might think it already lost, but Carr brings us rumors from deep within the enemy’s citadel suggesting that even there the tide may be turning.
Alright, so the martial metaphor may be a bit overdone, but that is more or less how I experienced Carr’s piece. On more than a few occasions over the last several months, I’ve written on the same theme and advocated an approach to digital media which preserves the dignity of the human person, particularly the in-the-flesh human persons in front of us. I’ve done so mainly by seconding the work of Jaron Lanier (here and here), Rochelle Gurstein, and Gary Shteyngart among others. But it has been awhile since I’ve addressed the matter, and I have to confess, there is a certain complacency that starts to set in. One begins to question whether it is even worth the effort. Perversely, one even begins to feel that it would be rude to point out the rudeness of those who will not give another human being their undivided attention or manage to take their calls out of public earshot. Carr, however, gives the cause of civility one more public shot in the arm.
He begins his piece straightforwardly, “Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude” Nothing new here, of course. Carr’s anecdotal evidence is drawn from his recent experience at South by Southwest Interactive. Here he witnesses all sorts of activities that would neatly fall into the category aptly described in the title of Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Alone Together. It is the usual sort of thing, people distractedly gazing at their smart phones and tablets whether in the audience, waiting in line, or even participating on a panel. In this particular piece, my favorite moment of bemused recognition came from Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican describing what happens after one person excuses themselves to check their phone at the dinner table,
“Instead of continuing with the conversation, we all take out our phones and check them in earnest,” he said. “For a few minutes everybody is typing away. A silence falls over the group and we all engage in a mass thumb-wrestling competition between man and little machine. Then the moment passes, the BlackBerrys and iPhones are reholstered, and we return to being humans again after a brief trance.”
Yet, there were also signs of awakening. For example, in response to his own presentation, “I’m So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done,” Carr reports that,
The biggest reaction in the session by far came when Anthony De Rosa, a product manager and programmer at Reuters and a big presence on Twitter and Tumblr, said that mobile connectedness has eroded fundamental human courtesies.
“When people are out and they’re among other people they need to just put everything down,” he said. “It’s fine when you’re at home or at work when you’re distracted by things, but we need to give that respect to each other back.”
His words brought sudden and tumultuous applause. It was sort of a moment, given that we were sitting amid some of the most digitally devoted people in the hemisphere. Perhaps somewhere on the way to the merger of the online and offline world, we had all stepped across a line without knowing it.
Lest we get too encouraged, Carr also tells of the earnest young man that came up to him after the talk to affirm the importance of “actual connection” while “casting sidelong glances at his iPhone while we talked.” Carr is almost certainly right when he suggests that the young man didn’t even realize what he was doing. The behavior is more or less habitual and thus just below the level of conscious awareness.
For some, however, the behavior is, in fact, quite conscious. Carr mentions MG Siegler’s TechCrunch essay entitled “I Will Check My Phone at Dinner and You Will Deal With It.” “This is the way the world works now,” Seigler brusquely informs us, “We’re always connected and always on call. And some of us prefer it that way.” Those are fighting words. They are also words that almost invoke a wearied resignation on the part of those who, in fact, don’t prefer it that way. This is the force of the rhetoric of inevitability: hear it and repeat it often enough and you start believing it.
Moreover, Carr notes that
… there is also a specific kind of narcissism that the social Web engenders. By grooming and updating your various avatars, you are making sure you remain at the popular kid’s table. One of the more seductive data points in real-time media is what people think of you. The metrics of followers and retweets beget a kind of always-on day trading in the unstable currency of the self.
That is nicely crafted and incisive metaphor right at the end, and, to borrow a line from David Foster Wallace, it all amounts to getting fed “food pellets of praise.” I would go so far as to speculate that the issue is neurological and I’m sure someone out there can refer me to a study that suggests a link between our social media interactions and the release of dopamine in the brain, or something along those lines. (Here’s a start: “All those tweets, apps, updates may drain brain.”)
In any case, the lines are drawn once more. The martial metaphors are in a sense already suggested by Carr in his closing lines, drawing on the observations of William Powers, he writes
And therein lies the real problem. When someone you are trying to talk to ends up getting busy on a phone, the most natural response is not to scold, but to emulate. It’s mutually assured distraction.
Mutually assured distraction of course alludes to the Cold War-era doctrine of mutually assured destruction. There may be more overlap between the two than even Carr intended, both are a form of madness in their own way. And perhaps it is time for more aggressive tactics. De Rosa, cited above, also wrote Carr the following:
I’m fine with people stepping aside to check something, but when I’m standing in front of someone and in the middle of my conversation they whip out their phone, I’ll just stop talking to them and walk away. If they’re going to be rude, I’ll be rude right back.
“Once more unto the breach …”