Tim Woodward: Folks sure love their phones

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMarch 2, 2014 

Every so often you witness something that makes you realize how much the world has changed. A recent incident in a Boise restaurant was such an occasion.

I was having lunch there when three teenage girls and one of their mothers slid into the adjacent booth. The girls began to commune with their smartphones while waiting for their order to be delivered.

“Look at this!” one would say, holding the phone so her friends could see it.

They watched in silence, occasionally punctuated by a grunt or a giggle.

“Check this out!”

Another phone extended, another silence. Eventually all three girls more or less dematerialized into their phones. The mother ate her lunch in silence, feeling, as my mother used to say, like two cents waiting for change.

I related to the mother. When we were those girls’ age, we actually talked when we went out with our friends.

This is not to say that kids today don’t talk to each other. They do, as anyone who has been to the mall or a high school event lately will attest. But they seem to spend as much or more time communicating with or through their devices than with each other.

We’re a device-oriented society. By that I mean that devices have become a dominant force, if not the dominant force, in daily life. And increasingly, those of us who aren’t device-oriented are the social equivalent of, well, two cents waiting for change.

How omnipresent are our devices? Last month, I attended a junior high school band concert at which almost none of the parents were actually watching the performance. They were watching their smartphones film it.

A young woman I know was texting on her smartphone during labor recently, thumbing messages between contractions.

A frequent visitor to our home is on her smartphone from the time she arrives at our house until the time she leaves. She’s on the phone when she walks in the door, on the phone when we’re trying to have a conversation or watch a movie, on the phone when she walks out the door. Occasionally she’s talking to someone on the phone, but more often she’s texting, tweeting, Googling or Facebooking. She considers this normal behavior. My wife and I consider it rude.

But then, we’re dinosaurs. What baby boomers consider rude or obsessive phone behavior is perfectly acceptable among members of Generation X and all but obligatory among millennials.

The demise of the actual dinosaurs — we haven't quite matched that distinction yet — might be the ultimate cautionary tale. Adapt or die. And God knows we’re trying to adapt. But as anyone who didn’t grow up with digital toys and smartphones will tell you, it’s not easy.

My wife has had her smartphone, a different brand than mine, for well over a year, and I still have trouble answering it. In the age of Pre-Digital Innocence, answering a phone was easy. You picked it up, said hello, and that was that. With my wife’s phone, you have to press an icon, slide another icon, enter a code, show it your birth certificate and submit to a retinal scan.

Facebook is a continuing mystery to me. Nothing on my page has been posted by its originator — me — in months. My daughters and granddaughters post things on it, my friends post things on it, for all I know Lady Gaga is posting things on it.

I was taking some pictures on my smartphone last week when suddenly, with no prompting whatsoever, the images changed from color to black and white. Happily, a seasoned, tech-savvy authority was standing 2 feet away: my 16-year-old granddaughter.

Voice recognition and autocorrect make me crazy. A few paragraphs earlier in this column, the word “behavior” was autocorrected to “beaver.”

When I’m correcting mistakes in texts or emails on my smartphone, its cursor goes everywhere but where I want it to, then opens a window that might as well say “nice try, stupid.”

The solutions to these problems, no doubt, are simple enough that I could end the frustration with some study and practice, but the truth is that I just don’t care enough. Maybe that’s the biggest difference between everyone else and dinosaurs such as yours truly. And besides, I found an eminently satisfying solution of my own recently. I threw the phone across the street.

The curmudgeon in me is tempted to grump that the devices that permeate our lives will spell the demise of human interaction. But that’s too easy and pessimistic, to say nothing of wrong. Curmudgeons undoubtedly said the same thing when telegraphs were invented. Technology isn’t stifling conversation; it’s changing it. Instead of having to write letters, make long-distance calls or run to the library for information, all the girls I encountered at that restaurant have to do is click. The world is at their thumb tips.

But I still say there’s nothing like a good, nondigital conversation.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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