Blackberry Means Never Fully Being Where You Are

The APA Monitor has an interview with Dr. Sherry Turkle who has documented how iphones, blackberries and other mobile devices have reduced the amount of attention users pay to people who are physically present. I love the technology as much as the next person, but there is something sad in reading that fathers are emailing during Sunday football game breaks during which they used to talk to their sons and some moms are texting while breastfeeding instead of focusing on their infant (which many mothers tell me was one of the most intimate experiences of their lives).

In my first week working at the Executive Office of the President, I was shocked when I saw someone was clearly sending email during a face to face meeting of only 4 people, but I soon adjusted to the norm. In the West Wing there is a photo of an oval office meeting of President Obama and some of his key advisors, and David Axelrod is Blackberrying away.

The technology is here to stay but I wonder if we can’t develop better social norms around it. Few of us are getting emails along the lines of “Doctor the patient has lost 2 pints of blood — get to the hospital now!”. Are we so narcissistic that we can’t admit that most of our email is spam or real but trivial, and certainly not something that can’t wait long enough for us to interact with people we care about who are sitting right next to us?

I have a friend who, every time we get together for lunch, puts his iphone next to his fork and reads it every time it buzzes. This behavior bothers me enough that I tend to arrange shared meals in places that do not allow cell phone use. Why I haven’t said “Would you shut that off?” I am not sure, but I think it’s because I think I shouldn’t have to anymore that I have to tell my dining companions not to pick their nose in front of me or chew with their mouth open. My social norm preference would place the burden of asking on the person who wants to disconnect from face to face interaction through technology rather than making that the default expectation. But I am not sure if my wishes are widely shared enough for that to ever become the social norm of how we use these new technologies.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

20 thoughts on “Blackberry Means Never Fully Being Where You Are”

  1. Are we so narcissistic that we can’t admit that most of our email is spam or real but trivial, and certainly not something that can’t wait long enough for us to interact with people we care about who are sitting right next to us?

    Yes. And our cell phone coversations are life-or-death matters also. All of them.

  2. There’s a lot of lovely intimacy when nursing, but it’s also just a heck of a lot of hours.

    Baby one, born in 2005? I read a lot, and even managed to knit sometimes.

    Baby two, born in 2009? Kicked a lot harder and with better aim. Wouldn’t let me read books or newspapers; pointy sticks would have been unsafe. BUT, she did let me read on my iPhone — which works in the dark, and also makes a great little nightlight/alarm clock/etc. etc.

    (I don’t know when else I would ever have been able to develop a serious Trollope habit…)

  3. Narcissism? Maybe a desire to be at least partly in some other moment? I’m not sure what to call that. And I think for people who’ve grown up with that possibility, it’s a mode of being they and others around them of the same cohort are used to.

    I don’t like it myself and find it rude. But then I’m old, and I’ve read a little bit on the impossibility of doing actual multi-tasking, at least for most people (we do task-switching instead, and badly). I tend to think directed attention is a good thing. A philosopher friend tells me, though, that his observation of present-day college students is that they don’t have that as a phenomenological skill. It’s just lacking.

    The nursing aspect is beyond my competence or experience, alas.

  4. I haven’t quite gotten use to people who make and take phone calls while on the toilet.

  5. In the days of yore (say as recent as the dark ages of the 1980s), people would pass each other by in the street, and if they were in a small town or just polite people, they would be up for salutations. Something like: “Good morning!” “Good Morning!” “How you doing?” “Well, thank you, and yourself?” “I’m fine, thanks for asking!”

    Nothing too thick and heavy. Nothing smacking of some Thoreau response taking 20 or so minutes. But a far cry from what we almost certainly need to say when passing other people today, especially if we care for their safety! What I find myself saying as I pass many a person these days is a sincere warning

    “You’ll run into a pole that way!”

    And many a reply has been, “I already have!”

  6. It wouldn’t hurt to say how you feel. I remember how, when I first got a cell phone, I was using traveling and using it extensively in restaurants without any thought as to my conversations might be annoying other patrons. When I waiter asked me to to desist, I only wished he’d said something sooner.

  7. Keith, the polite approach would be to suggest in the most cordial and sincere way to your friend that you will excuse yourself so as not to interfere with his business. From Judith Martin.

  8. Emma Jane: Dr. Turkle isn’t talking about reading (of a book or on a device) but actually being in communication with someone else. One of her key findings is that the attentional demands of being in Internet conversation is much greater than reading (see the linked article about how it’s easier to connect with someone who is reading the Sunday paper next to you than someone who is texting). The other thing she noted is: “A mother made tense by text messages is going to be experienced as tense by the child. And that child is vulnerable to interpreting that tension as coming from within the relationship with the mother. This is something that needs to be watched very closely.”

  9. I’ve got another proposal: for many people, the world around them is a miserable place. Economy, environment, political climate — you name it, and it sucks. Cyberspace, even if it’s partly about the real world, is generally clean, well-lit, free of stinks and hunger (albeit sometime full of backbiting and bullying) and in general rather more elegant than the physical world. So why would people want to escape there, and to the illusion that by reading their email, sending texts or answering calls they were getting things done and exterting some kind of control over their lives? Then, of course, once those habits are established they’re hard to break even at times when a person wants to be present.

    20 years ago Mark Weiser, on of the inventors of ubiquitous computing, argued that integrating computers and communication devices into the physical world was much better than retreating into a sensually impoverished virtual reality to take advantage of all the neat things that cycles and bandwidth can do for us. I don’t think he anticipated that we might end up with the worst features of both worlds, where our actual lives are impoverished to make room for our virtual selves.

  10. I ask my friends snidely, “How’s your phone?” Don’t try with non-friends, or the humorless.

    While feeding my son midnight bottles I watched Jacques Pepin’s Cooking Techniques. He’s only 3, I’ll be very curious to find out whether it had any subliminal impact when he’s old enough to try his hand at a proper brunoise.

  11. I am an old guy. I do not mind people using their cellphones. I don’t understand the problem. When a waitress comes to the table, it’s ok to take you attention from me and talk to her. If you drop your fork, you can ignore me while you pick it up. Having a screen posting little bulletins while we talk is, in my experience, harmless.

    What I do object to is when a person is not paying enough attention to me. If there are a lot of pretty girls in the place and my dining partner has constantly wandering eyes, I feel like he’s not interested in what I say. Replies to text messages or answering phone calls can both become offensive when they make it so that the conversational flow is broken. People, mostly young, that receive texts while dining seem able to read and keep the conversation going.

    Most of the people I have heard tell me this is a bad thing seem to be basing their view on some internal dogma. “This is bad.” QED “This is bad.” As if, in some distant past, their pregnant mother was frightened by a Blackberry. I don’t mind as long as the conversation flows in interesting directions. If it doesn’t, whether because of a device or a boring mind, I’m outta there.

  12. The wait staff shouldn’t be interrupting a table with a conversation. Passing close by will be enough to allow them to summon the server if anything is needed.

    EVERY time I go out to eat, my partner and I are interrupted by a server. It doesn’t matter if you’re animatedly chatting, leaning close in and absorbed by conversation, holding hands, or explaining a business diagram on a napkin, they INTERRUPT.

    Time for the polite to refuse rudeness.

  13. Keith: It’s all in the spin.Obviously for some women texting while breastfeeding will diminish the bonding experience, but equally obviously for others it will make extended breastfeeding (with all of its documented effects improving immune system function, IQ and so forth) possible. You have to know what the alternatives and the opportunity costs are. It’s not even clear whether a study to sort all this out would be logistically or ethically feasible.

    Of course, now I’m feeling terribly guilty about having carried my son in a sling while reading blogs and doing freelance work at the computer. If only I hadn’t neglected him so shamefully he’d be reading at an even higher grade level.

  14. Betsy: thanks for the Judith Martin reference. Stupid LAT for not carrying her column anymore. As if people had outgrown politeness or something.

  15. One option is to interpret it as a signal that the person is somewhat disengaged from the interaction.

    My response is generally say something to someone else that gets the attention (in a positive way) of the individual using the device.

  16. Until fairly recently, my job involved a heavy first-responder technical support component. (It still does somewhat, but it’s a much smaller part of my job now.) Having a smartphone allowed me to leave the office for hour-long lunches on occasion, because I could monitor alerts. 99% of what comes in is not urgent; the 1% that is, is crucial. Even for the stuff that’s not strictly urgent, there’s a fair amount where dealing with it quickly makes it better. This is especially true if you administer a staff–sometimes e-mail discussions that will spiral into nonsense, or fights, can be kept in the realm of sanity if tackled early.

    Which isn’t to say the ‘phone isn’t distracting. But it’s liberating as well.

  17. I wish people weren’t so narcicistic to think that summoning half a dozen people for a meeting was actually a valuable use of time.

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