screen saver

leaving the pocket-sized world

A photo of three or four Brown students popped onto the projector screen during my Psychology and Philosophy of Happiness class last semester. The students in the picture, a few standing, others sitting, were in a loose circle on a patch of grass. My professor pointed out that they were connected and disconnected at the same time. As he explained, they were arranged in a particular shape, so they were with each other on purpose—but not one person was looking at another person in the group. Every student was gazing into a smartphone.

Why were they on their phones? Were they all communicating (text messaging, Snapchatting, Facebook messaging, Skyping, Facetime-ing, GroupMe-ing, etc.) with people who were not able to join their in-person meeting? Were the people that could only be reached through the phones preferable to the people nearby? Why should I assume that they’re choosing to chat through a screen rather than talk face-to-face? I know I do way more than use social media apps on my phone. Beyond communication, a smartphone can be used for so much more.

Smartphones have made it easier to get work done. Through the extremely useful Canvas app, I’ve read excerpts from the works of Freud, Weber, Levi-Strauss, and other thinkers on my iPhone. Other helpful tools for homework include word processing apps, such as Pages and Microsoft Word. Too lazy to go to the library late at night, I once started a response paper on the Google Docs app.

Beyond apps for work, there are other apps for general productivity. Scheduling apps help us plan our weeks, and weather apps help us plan what to wear. Yelp helps us decide where we can get a nice dinner, and Google Maps helps us get there.

When we don’t have to be productive, our smartphones can allow us to enjoy ourselves, to engage with art anytime, anywhere. Apps for e-reading have allowed me to read entire novels, plus long excerpts of works by Shakespeare and Austen, when I could not get the printed editions. Video apps like Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, and Netflix make it easy to experience excellent movies and television series (both of which definitely can be works of art). Among the works I’ve watched include arthouse films such as Denis Villenueve’s Enemy and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Maybe the students in the photo were taking a small break to read a few chapters from a book or to watch a few minutes of a movie.

Of course, all I’ve done so far is make excuses. I haven’t said anything inaccurate; I’ve just been trying to explain why, for instance, if I’m too early for a class, I nervously pace outside the room with my eyes on my phone as I refresh my email client again and again. I’m proposing reasons why (as I’ve observed a few times) people who are unfamiliar with each other but are in the same room, waiting for the same event to start, often keep their eyes on their phones.

People are more intimidating in person than they are through Facebook or a similar medium. The emotions conveyed through a photo are easy to understand; the feelings expressed in person are often more subtle. In person, you don’t have time to look over your remarks and edit them; on social media, you can shut off the app and claim a technical difficulty occurred. But the reward of sharing physical space is greater; a special kind of energy and connection can be formed in person, while a screen, no matter its picture quality, feels lifeless in comparison.

In a similar way, a movie playing on a huge screen in a dark auditorium with speakers blasting leaves a more powerful impact than a movie viewed on a palm-sized screen. High-resolution photos of an art exhibit fail to convey the beauty of artwork that a visitor to the actual studio would feel. But the power and beauty can be overwhelming, and we might feel tempted to make it all pocket-sized and easier to deal with. If we keep doing this, though, we prevent ourselves from feeling intense, profound emotions, which can be important and useful for us.

It might feel as if we have access to everything we could ever want at the tips of our fingers, but this is not true. Instead, our phones present us with a user-friendly version of the world. This place is easier to navigate and much more comfortable than real life, and our phones tempt us to lose ourselves in this place, to jump in through the bright screens. I admit that I find it cozy in there. But every time we gaze into our phones, we leave the real world and enter an inferior one.

The user-friendly world is more accessible than the physical world, but this accessibility tends to diminish the value of many features of life. Sometimes, this trade-off is worth it. Google Maps and e-books have made it easier for us to get the information we need. But when it comes to relationships with other people, I do not want mine to exist as accepted friend requests, a few exchanged text messages, and nothing more. The bond is less meaningful when I can fit it in my pocket.

There is nothing wrong with social media, or Netflix, or the other things we do with our phones. But we have to remember that what we can do in real life is better than that. The world might seem scary, overwhelming, and difficult to manage, but that’s okay. What we can experience outside of our phones is often worth the difficulty. We should make sure we save ourselves from our screens and engage with the world around us. I’m going to do my best to keep my phone in my pocket when I show up to class early, and I’ll smile at the students in the room. We might have chance to talk a bit and feel a little closer.

What were the students I saw in my class on happiness doing on their phones? It doesn’t matter. I believe that after the photo was taken, they put their phones away and had a nice time in each other’s company.