Technology is tearing us apart

Russell Wangersky rwanger@thetelegram.com
Published on August 6, 2013

If our phones are so smart, why are we so dumb?

By now, everyone in Canada has probably heard something about the battle over whether or not American cellphone companies will have a special status when it comes to buying new space in the wavelength spectrum.

Likewise, probably everyone in Canada has experienced the cellphone disconnect — some experience it on a far more regular basis.

No, not the loss of a call on the phone you probably have somewhere on your person, but the loss of the attention of the person you’re actually sitting and talking to, that experience framed by the hanging sentence, “And I also …,” with the end of that sentence left hanging as your conversation partner is suddenly distracted by a much more pressing ring or text.

To say that smartphones are becoming ubiquitous is almost an understatement; bleeps and trills punctuate much of everyday life, and it’s not unusual to see the tableau of a couple eating a romantic dinner at an expensive restaurant conversing not with each other, but with a much wider text or instant-messaging audience. Two people in a darkened room, both faces lit by respective phones.

Events are filled with people using their smartphones to capture the experience and send it to everyone who isn’t there.

But here’s a thought: years ago, my father, an avid photographer, taught my older brother and I not only how to take pictures, but how to develop those photographs in Dad’s basement darkroom. (He handled developing the film, afraid, I think, that since even the smallest bit of light leakage would ruin the film, we could lose all our efforts too easily. If you wreck prints, you could just start again. Ruined film was final.)

And I did take photographs for a while. But I wear glasses. Hold on for a moment and I’ll explain what I mean — the beauty of glasses is that you can choose to have them be a safety barrier between you and the world. They set you free by setting you apart; I realized early on that photography was, in its own way, an even more distancing thing.

With the camera between you and the rest of life, you could wind up with wonderful images of something you had actually failed to fully experience. There are, of course, wonders in the world of what is captured — but spend a night at a party taking pictures, and you might realize that you have captured everyone else’s experience there while failing to fully experience the event yourself.

So, back to smartphones and dumb people. We are letting ersatz relationships destroy real ones. I think we should all stop at least once a day and try to drum into ourselves that the most important conversation that you can have is the one that’s taking place in real life. With the person who’s right in front of you. Don’t answer the phone, don’t tweet or text or email — listen, consider, answer the person instead.

Don’t put life on hold for the only device that really does have a “hold” key. Few of us are heart surgeons; that trembling or chirping call is probably not a life-or-death situation.

That said, I don’t think things are likely to get better. It’s plain that technology cannot even conceive of anything less than full cellphone coverage.

When I venture into places without coverage — something that’s harder and harder to find these days — my phone dies a blissful, vibrating death in a matter of an hour or so, exhausting its battery searching for a signal it simply cannot find.

I was on the Salmonier Line last month and passed a massive new cellphone tower just before the main road into the Deer Park; a new tower near Thorburn Road gives a clear line of sight and occasionally a wide swath of service right through into Conception Bay North.

Constant electronic connectivity looms. So does the immediate personal disconnect.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached

by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.