Availability and Obligation: Using Technology the Right Way

Busted! The sneaky moves of anti-social smartphone user,” seemed sensational even for the usually grandiose titles of TEDTalks, but I found myself nodding to Renny Gleeson’s every word. If you haven’t watched this video yet, I highly recommend it. At only three minutes, it’s shorter than the usually TED video but just as packed with wit and insight.

Gleeson’s talk is a humorous look at the intruding presence of cell phones in our everyday lives. Although he doesn’t explicitly separate these out, he addresses two different phenomena, both mediated by that cellphone on your pocket: the documentation impulse and culture of availability.

The documentation impulse is our urge to document, via photograph, tweet, etc., the large and small events of our lives. The camera or the cellphone (or cellphone camera) becomes an intrusion into the actual course of events; as Gleeson puts it, it indicates that “Our reality is less interesting than the story I will tell.” The culture of availability reflects our tendency to attend to our buzzing cellphones, even at the expense of our real life conversations. It’s rude, yet , I think many of us are guilty of it. So the culture of availability has a flip side too, and that is the culture of unavailability.

My most salient experience of this is sitting in a classroom the few awkward minutes before class starts. Small talk could break the silence, almost everyone in the class will be hiding behind a laptop gchatting a digital friend or hunched over a cellphone punching in letters. Even the simple act of asking a classmate about an assignment feels like an intrusion into someone else’s space. As someone guilty of the laptop/cellphone stunt as well, I don’t think we mean to remove ourselves from our surroundings – at least that is not my intention – but it is rather a way to avoid the awkward silence.

Gleeson ends his talk with a plea to the audience, “Let’s make technologies that make people more human, not less.” This alls sounded great in the context of his snazzy presentation but as I mulled over Gleeson’s words afterwards, I’m still not exactly what he means or expects out of technology. How does anything we create that is mediated by wires and microchips make us more human? According to Gleeson, tied up with the idea of being human seems to be the creation of a shared narrative, not just sharing narratives but actually creating them with one another.

To characterize phone users as “anti-social,” as the attention-grabbing title of this talk does, is a little misleading. The vast majority of the time we’re on our phones, we are being social, just with the voice on the other end of the receiver rather than with our surroundings. While it is different kind of socialization, it is not solipsistic. And we when take our photos, say at an Improv Everywhere stunt, and pool them in a Flickr group, that is a creation of shared narrative. The cellphone is not all bad, and it is probably not fair to say that technology has failed at allowing us to be human.

As I mused about Gleeson’s pleas for more humanizing technology, I didn’t come to an answer, but rather another question: Is it really technology itself that is the problem? The problem of our divided attention does not lie in the fact that we all have cellphones, but rather in how we use them. While having a cellphone has undeniably gotten me out of trouble more times than I can count, I have never needed it by my side 24/7. Each one of our cellphones, not matter how ancient or new, has a very simple but powerful button: OFF.