Being A Good Human

Interruption Machines

While watching a group of young parents at dinner the other night, I was amazed at how often they jumped out of conversations with their friends and children because their phone dinged or buzzed. It was very clear that no matter what was happening, their phone was first in line for attention.

Before you think that I was watching them with a holier-than-thou attitude, I can assure you that I was not. In fact, it made me wonder about my own mobile phone use.  Let’s call it what it really is: addiction. I have a problem with it, and I’m guessing you do too. There is a good chance you are reading this on your phone right now.

Mobile phones, in and of themselves, are not bad.  They revolutionized communication in many ways, and I think that generally speaking, many parts of our lives are better for them.  However, there is a part of our lives that has also become exponentially worse, and I think it will continue to decay until we start talking about it, naming it, admitting it.

When did it become okay for kids to go to their brother’s or sister’s soccer game, but instead of watching the match or playing with friends, to play Bejeweled or Angry Birds in solitude? Why is it commonplace to walk into a restaurant and see couples looking at their phones (for quite a while) instead of talking with each other? Who else is bothered by their own behavior when they realize instead of taking in a beautiful view after a hike or bike ride, they instinctively reach for their phone so they can share the experience with Instagram or SnapChat friends (most of whom probably don’t want to see yet another picture of a landscape)?

Recently, my wife sent me an article that talks about the most common regrets at the end of life, according to a nurse who is with many when they die. It’s a good article (you can read it here), and I have read stories like this before.  This caused me to think about my own behavior, and my generation’s behavior when it comes to mobile phones.  We really are the first to raise children who will never know a world without smart phones.  I looked down the road, and came up with this prediction:

It’s a sad thought. In my final moments, will I be playing a more technological version of “Cat’s In The Cradle” in my head? I can bet Vegas odds that too many in my generation will.

Much of our behavior is shaped by perception and subtle nuance. Packaging matters, as does messaging (take the word of an ad man). It’s no wonder that we flock so quickly to something called a “smart phone”.  The genesis of this name comes from the ability of the phone itself, in comparison to the passive or “dumb” behavior of mobile phones before it.  With practically limitless entertainment and information at our fingertips, what more could we want? Given that nuance can and does change our behavior, I’m trying something new. Instead of referring to my phone as “my mobile” or even “my phone”, I am calling it “The Interruption Machine”.

Do you see that subtle difference? Instead of viewing my phone as something that connects me to experience, I see it for what it has become…something that interrupts actual experiences.  What is more important, posting a picture of my son riding his bike with me, or being completely present for my son while we ride bikes together? I know how he would answer that question.

This isn’t about the psychology of compulsively checking our social networks (that is a subject that many people who study it far more than I do have written many, many articles about already); it’s more cut and dried.  Sometimes people talk about the need to check their phones because of FOMO (fear of missing out), when the sad irony is that by checking their phones they are missing out on the reality of what is happening around them and to them at that moment.

I hope to avoid a future where “spent too much time on my phone” is a deathbed regret of an entire generation, but given the strength of our attraction to these devices (wearables, anyone?) I believe it’s somewhat inevitable. The best thing I can do is acknowledge this and try to change my own behavior. I don’t want to miss moments with my children, my wife or my friends. That’s why I’m considering getting a good old fashioned flip phone…but that is another post for another day.