For thousands of years, the standard dinner table has featured the following four items: fork, knife, plate, spoon. Similarly, likely dating back to the days of Plato’s Academy, there have typically sat three items on the standard classroom desk: a writing utensil, a notebook, and the assigned readings.
Yet at some point in recent years, a new fixture has entered these domains; deemed an essential tool in human’s dining and learning experiences, it has moved out of its original home in the purse and the backpack and found its way onto dinner tables and desks nationwide: the smartphone.
Indeed, so pervasive is the smartphone’s presence in these historically-sacred domains that professors find themselves indicating when it is not appropriate to use the smartphone during class (as to imply that there are times when it is appropriate). Restaurants are similarly smartphone-savvy, creating menu-apps and posting WiFi codes on their menus.
In many respects, the presence of this device has posited benefits for the average student and diner: Interested in reading the bio of the person your professor is talking about? WikiPedia it. Want to savor the image of your dinner’s elegant presentation? Instagram it. These platforms, coupled with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other socially-interactive websites and applications, suggest the smartphone’s unprecedented ability to both stimulate conversation (based on its display of what’s trending) and enrich classroom dialogue (based on its role as an interactive encyclopedia).
On the other hand, the Smartphone may be doing just the opposite; simply by making this device a permanent fixture of our classroom desks and dinner tables, we may become overly-reliant on its abilities. When asked a difficult question in class, we may turn to Google before figuring the answer out for ourselves. When confronted with an awkward silence at dinner, we may use our phones to qualm the anxiety. By remaining constantly ‘connected’, we may diminish our ability to think critically and independently. By engaging in a platform that sends and receives “snap” pictures of our surroundings, we may be depriving ourselves of fully experiencing the moment we capture in the present.
This phenomenon is precisely what recently viral sensations have begun to address. Look Up, for instance, describes itself as “a spoken word film for an online generation”; it addresses how our addiction to technology and social media diminishes our experience as humans, and implores that we “look up” from our smartphones. Digital Detox similarly pleads to “develop a new code of ethics around technologies, creating social etiquette, setting positive cultural norms, and raising awareness around harmful habits.” Responding to the fact that “the average American spends more than half of their waking life staring at a screen”, the movement sponsors “Digital Detox Retreats” and summer camps for the purpose of “disconnect[ing] to reconnect.”
Regardless of how centrally you feature the smartphone in your individualized dining and learning experiences, it is important to contemplate how smartphone’s increasing prevalence at the dinner table and in the classroom affects our restaurant and classroom culture; is it a beneficial addition- allowing us to process more information and enrich conversation? Or does it undermine our beautifully human ability to think critically and live in the moment?
January 17, 2015Bradley Lewis
I liked the post–clear, well-written, and addressing an important subject. And I agree with the conclusion. But it also made me think about a few previous electronic devices that had some of the same issues.
One was radio, which meant we constantly could have voices, conversations, and music going when no one was actually around. (And in the heyday of radio, some of the shows began to set up situations that essentially tried to get the listener to see him or herself in the conversation, even if it was not “talk” format.) And of course, radio ended up in our cars, too.
A second was television. Did we leave it on during dinner? Did it constitute background for some? What amounted to sports bars have been around in one form or another for a long time, but initially that meant that the conversation there was often about sports.
A third was music from a phonograph (and from other sources, too, including “Muzak”)
One difference, with which the author’s comments are quite consistent, is that those three for a long time usually did not enter into classrooms. But they did play a major role in other parts of life.
We may get some clues on the current revolution from thinking about what these did.
January 19, 2015Donna
This instantly reminded me of a trip taken to England in the pre-digital days. It was a group tour and one of fellow travelers was so obsessed with photographing everything he always had his eye to the viewfinder of his camera (pre-digital remember). I recall wondering how much of our trip he was actually seeing since he so focused on only what his camera could see and I suspected he was missing a lot and when he could finally view the pictures, he might not even know what he was looking at.
I have to plead guilty to whipping out my smart phone. I did it just the other night at dinner when Beechnut’s defunct factory came up in conversation so I went to wikipedia and outlined their whole corporate history for everyone. Probably boiled down to TMI.
January 20, 2015Sheri Lullo
Great post. I particularly like your point about the smartphone’s tendency to deprive us of living in the moment. This certainly happens in the classroom and at the dinner table–another unfortunate place this occurs is at the museum. Next time you to go the museum, notice how many people snap photos of art works they enjoy, and then move on to the next piece. Have they really looked at that work? Sadly, when I take students to the museum for my Art History courses, I see that some take photos of the works they plan to write about (albeit multiple views, which IS a good thing), and then feel prepared to write their visual analyses at home, relying on those small, flat and distant images tucked away in the phone. What they’re missing is the valuable experience of sitting before a work of art and truly looking. Being in the presence of the actual piece, existing with it in the moment, is part of the privilege of visiting the museum. Take notes then and there, record impressions and feelings. I’m always surprised at how much more I understand about a work–and more importantly, how many more questions I have about that work–when standing in its actual presence.