We Need To Talk

When I think of the communication breakdown that we're experiencing in our culture, my first instinct is to blame AOL. Yes, AOL, which for many of us was the first way we experienced the Internet. Or, more specifically, I blame Elwood Edwards, whose voice you would hear every time you logged onto AOL and discovered that "You've Got Mail." Was there any sweeter sound? It was so optimistic. A lilting tone with an upward lift at the end. A single spondaic stress with an iamb at the end. It was like the dinging sound of a slot machine when you win. Vegas casinos have long known that people will associate that ringing with winning in a Pavlovian sense, and will keep inserting money not just until they win, but until they hear the reassuring "ding." The same was true for AOL. We would log on multiple times, waiting as the page slowly filled in over our dial-up connections, until the end when Mr. Edwards would make his proud proclamation. Or not, at which point we'd feel dejected. Like we had failed, somehow.

[Image credit: Artotem]

I think part of this experience was addictive because of the novelty of it, but now I'm seeing a similar trend in smartphone users. A constant checking. A need for connection. At first, it was about productivity. I need to check my email so that I can keep in touch with work. If I didn't have this smartphone, I'd be in the office right now, so even though you only have half of my attention, that's 50% more than you would have if we lived in a world without smartphones.

I never bought that logic. As far as I'm concerned, there are only two types of people who need to check their messages so incessantly. Doctors and drug dealers. Either you have to tend to a medical emergency, or you're running a nefarious enterprise that relies on the lowliest dregs of society and the satisfaction of their immediate whims. Those are the two professions that were so closely associated with pagers, when those devices first appeared. But now, everyone thinks they have to keep in touch with the office, all the time.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, a survey circulated that claimed more than 50% of smartphone users would be checking their e-mail at the dinner table during the holiday meal. My friend Ben Patterson over at Yahoo! tackles the issue nicely. Ben even offers some suggestions for how to keep yourself away from the email. But he does end by admitting that he will probably end up breaking his own rules and taking a peek at the inbox.

Did you check your email during Thanksgiving dinner? Did you check on your fantasy football team? Play a quick round of Angry Birds? Take a picture of the turkey to tweet?

I did not. Allow me to be a little self-righteous here, but I made it a point to not use my smartphone at the table. Well, once I took it out to take a photo, while my wife was in another room using the point-and-shoot I brought. But I never checked my mail, my Facebook updates, my RSS feeds or any such thing. I had planned this in advance, and I'm glad I did.

This isn't a Thanksgiving thing for me. As a tech journalist, I see this problem more than most people, I think. I was in London for Nokia World this fall. My company paid for my trip, but Nokia folks took me and a few other journalists out to dinner the night before the show. I was having SIM card problems with my phone, so I had no connection. I left the phone in my pocket the whole night. I was the only one. Everybody else at the table was checking their phones constantly.

At first I felt conspicuous, like I might be missing something interesting. Were they tweeting about the meal? Trading secrets behind the backs of our hosts? No, nothing so sinister. Just mundane conversation. Checking schedules for the week. Coordinating news coverage. Keeping in touch. After a while, I felt pretty good about myself for focusing on the people in front of me. I talked to people the entire time, all of whom were pretty interesting, and many of whom I was just meeting for the first time. Some were friends I hadn't seen in a while, since we all live spread out across the U.S.

Dinner lasted two hours, maybe. It occurred to me that for the entire year, I would probably spend no more than five hours in the presence of members of this collected group. In the same way that, in my entire year, I'll probably spend only a few hours in the presence of my in-laws, family friends and the group assembled for our Thanksgiving feast. But at that dinner in London, my colleagues were spending much of their time talking to people they hear from every day. They were reading news that could definitely wait until later in the evening. They were missing one of the more interesting parts of the trip, in favor of reconnecting with the most mundane.

I admit I was somewhat offended. I was also a bit lonely. If you didn't realize, breaking out the smartphone and ignoring the people around you while you interact with your device is very off-putting. It says to the people you're with, in no uncertain terms, I don't want to talk to you right now, I would rather talk to someone else or do something different. Would you open a stack of letters at the table and start reading? Would you leave the dinner table to play a quick game of solitaire with a real deck of cards? Of course not, I hope. But so many people think it's acceptable to use a smartphone.

Maybe it's because the phone is so small. Maybe because it seems so inconspicuous, even though there is nothing more conspicuous in the world at that moment than you, burying your face in a tiny, electronic screen and silently ignoring the people around you.

At the Thanksgiving meal, I was the only smartphone owner who did not look at my phone for the entire evening. Well, my wife didn't look at hers, but that's because she accidentally left it at a security checkpoint at our originating airport. I'll bet she talked more to her friends that weekend than she has in years.

That's my point. Put the phone down and talk to me. I know I'm not as exciting as what you're doing, but I'm more important. I won't pay off in instant gratification, but in the middle of March, when you're lonely and longing for some companionship at the end of a long winter, you're not going to look back fondly on the Thanksgiving meal and remember how you earned three stars on level 3-5 of Angry Birds. But you might remember having a good time with me. Maybe I'll say something funny. Maybe I'll share a story that you end up repeating to other people.

You won't get the jolt and adrenaline rush of firing up AOL and hearing Elwood Edwards cry out: "You've Got Mail!" But I promise that when you check on how I'm doing, instead of checking your inbox, you won't find spam from your gym or a deal from Groupon that doesn't interest you. Though, like with Facebook, I might bore you with pictures of my kids, or useless information about my holiday vacation. But if I do say something interesting, you won't have to click 'Like.' You can just talk to me.