21 February 2016

Do the Dead Surf the Internet? A Diatribe on Cell Phone Overuse and Multi Tasking

I’m on the treadmill today in the early stages of what would be an eight mile run, when a woman gets on the machine next to me.  She turns on the TV screen that is at eye level on many treadmills, then she opens up a magazine, then she searches for just the right music on her iPhone. It takes awhile but eventually she’s all set. To do what? Jog lightly while she alternates between the magazine article and CNN (captioned) all the while listening to tunes. Some workout.

I’m a bit of an eccentric. When I go to the gym its for the purpose of exercise. No, seriously, call me crazy but that's what I do. The TV I watch at home. I read at home or on public transportation. Same with listening to music. Kooky, right? I hate that treadmills and elliptical machines and cross ramps and stair masters have TV screens now. I hate that people think they “need” music in order to work out. I hate that everyone has to multi task all the time. (Full confession: while writing this I’m watching The Godfather and reading War and Peace and listening to Chopin and showering). I wonder if people listen to music while they meditate. I wonder if people check their cell phones for text messages while they meditate. I wonder if some people have figured out how to update their Facebook status while sleeping. Do the dead surf the internet? Do the deceased compose emails while binge watching Orange is the New Black? Do the dearly departed listen to music while cloud hopping?

Is there anything left that people do without doing something else? Do people check their cellphones while making love? Can people sit and read a book (remember those?) without stopping to check Twitter or Instagram or ESPN every minute?

I realize that cell phones are addictive. I see this in my job. I teach ESL students from all over the world. Most are in the early 20s. I lot of them have a deuce of a time not getting out their cell phones every two minutes. When I walk into the classroom a few students are usually having a chat while the majority are staring at their phones. Once the break starts and once class ends the phones come out. If there’s any lull in the class you can see students reach for the phone. No one can have an empty minute, or second. Nothing to do for 30 seconds? Check your phone. They even like to check when there are things happening. I’ve seen students put their cellphones inside books on their desk, behind pencil cases, in handy coat pockets, on their laps and sitting atop open purses and backpacks. It’s amazing that they think they can get away with it. I’m a wily old veteran who is not easily fooled. I suppose their misplaced confidence comes from the fact that they get away with it so often with so many other teachers.

I observer teachers now and the young ones are variously blind to cell phone use in their class or don’t care. At a recent teacher meeting I reminded colleagues that letting students use their cell phone was not only bad form and bad teaching but against school policy. You should have heard some of the youngsters bellyache. “But its the world we live in!” one of them whined. In a sense he’s got a point. We do indeed live in a world in which cellphone use is addictive and good manners are increasingly rare. But we are — or should be — lord and masters of our classrooms and insist that the focus in classrooms should be on lessons, not on their stupid phones.

Why can't we wait in line or for a bus or for an appointment without seeing "the latest"? It's scary that we need so many little fixes constantly and can never just be.

All this rambling comes from a man who loves his iPhone 6. My daughters gave it to me last Father’s Day and as a person who grew up in time of rotary phones, computers the size of large rooms and TVs that got five channels, I’m still amazed at how much you can do with an object that fits comfortably into a front pocket. Not so many years ago the notion that you could not only carry your telephone with you, but that you could take photos and videos with it and write messages and look up words, tell the correct time and see when the next bus was coming and have a flashlight and access to the internet would have been met by an astounded person asking: what’s the internet? As for the rest of it, well the whole idea would have been ludicrous. A phone that not only fit in your pocket put took photos and videos and that you could watch movies on? You'd have been thought to be on drugs, crazy or possessing one helluva an imagination.

Speaking of crazy, it’s just frickin’ crazy what the damn things can do. I can take a picture, post it on instagram and a person in Belgium can see it all within 30 seconds. A decade ago if I wanted someone in Belgium to see a photo I’d taken the process would have absorbed a week or more and required trips to film developers and the post office and cost some dough in the bargain. We live in an age of miracles.

I love twitter and instagram and emailing and getting live sport scores and watching videos and all the other cool stuff that you can do with a phone. But I know to keep the thing in my pocket when someone is speaking to me. I know, old fashioned, right.

(By the way thanks for not getting me started on idiots who have loud cell phone conversations in public places like busses. You do not want me to go off on that because for one thing it’ll be awhile before I can stop.)

I started this tirade off with the evils of multi tasking. I think it’s bad practice. Focus on one thing. Do it well. Appreciate it. Involve yourself in the moment. It’s better for your brain. When I run I want to be attuned to my body and that’s not possible if I have Supertramp blasting in my ears. I also want to let some thoughts get out and others get in. I do a lot of important thinking while I’m running. Mostly I clear my head of all the garbage that has accumulated there. That’s impossible if your piling more noise and information into it.

Of course one of the things that’s going on here — as my wife would hasten to tell you — is that I’m stuck in my ways. Yeah I suppose, but then again that’s okay when the ways your stuck in are the right ways.

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