David Carr's brilliant piece about how our digital devices have ushered in a new era of rudeness is worth a read. Carr describes a fascinating phenomenon at the recent South by Southwest conference, in which hardly anyone engaged in a flesh-and-blood, undivided-attention human conversation. This is despite the fact that conferences happen precisely to encourage such conversations. At South by Southwest everyone was too attached to their phones (or their tablets) to really listen to the people right in front of them.
Of course, it's not only conferences. Many group dinners now include frequent checks of the phone. Sometimes it's to answer a question that's arisen in conversation...but other times it's because work is beckoning and there is (seemingly) no way not to respond.
I love my iPhone and can't imagine life without it. But I've developed my own etiquette for dinners with friends...never have the phone on the table; only use it if someone (usually Pi Wen) requests it for a bit of fact-checking; return it to my pocket as soon as the task is complete. Once all phones are out and everyone is thumbing away, dinner as we know it is over. I didn't realize until today, after reading Carr, that I'd developed this etiquette; it's been subconscious. But now I feel vindicated.
Then again, maybe norms are shifting and this isn't so bad, as MG Siegler argued on TechCrunch. Fair enough--time will tell. But it's also fair to observe a "certain conformity" in all the phone checking, as William Powers noted to Carr. Powers wrote Hamlet's Blackberry, in an effort to help us distinguish useful from non-useful uses of digital technology. He sees conformity in the fact that everyone has to check their phones once just one person does.
It's middle school for adults; smart phone tending is the new way to be cool. But just like in middle school, we'll eventually figure out that being cool isn't so hot.