Musing, Rant

This is Not the Zombie Apocalypse

Hey kids. It’s ranting time. I don’t really have a preamble for this, so let’s go.

Smart phone users are not zombies.

Did you catch that? Should I repeat it?

Smart. Phone. Users. Are. Not. Zombies.

I have noticed an incredible tendency in both the social media and offline worlds to equate people who use their cell phones on a regular basis to zombies. What they are implying is that these people are inhuman creatures who cannot think for themselves, as their minds have been consumed with the singular goal of acquiring wifi access. This is a super common but totally ridiculous notion, and it is pissing me off.

I’m so annoyed that I’m going to break this bitch down into parts. Hang on to your butts, kids.

1. Smart Phone Use is Human Interaction

The main argument leveled against smart phone use (an argument that usually comes from those who were left behind by the technology and wish to justify their choices by convincing themselves that there is something wrong with the technology and not with them*) is that it pulls people away from real human interaction. If you’re on your phone all the time texting and tweeting, the argument goes, how can you really connect with people?

Of course, what this argument completely fails to take into consideration is that being on a phone is social interaction. What do you think is on the other end of that line–a warthog? It’s a person. A human being, who is texting back. Sometimes that person is texting because they are trying to meet up with the other person physically, so that they can interact in a more traditional way. This is communication. It’s an entirely new and unprecedented form of communication, but communication nonetheless. Human social interaction is inventive and adaptable. It doesn’t have to look like the socializing you participate in to still be called socializing.

2. Non-Digital Activities are Not Inherently Better

When I was on the bus the other day, reading a paperback because I’m old-fashioned like that, a random dude interrupted my reading to tell me that he thought it was nice to see somebody still reading a real book in this day and age. I probably don’t have to tell you that a brief glance around the bus revealed that most of the people around me were also reading–on phones or tablets. This dude was a creepy creeper who creeps, so I politely excused myself from the conversation rather than engaging him, but if I had felt so inclined I might have explained this to him:

Doings things the old-fashioned way is not better than doing them on a phone.

Reading in a book is not better than reading on a phone. Reading in a book is not better than watching TV on your phone, because storytelling is storytelling, and you cannot judge the quality of somebody’s media consumption by the medium in which they choose to consume it. Doing crosswords or sudoku in a workbook is not better than doing them on a phone, and those games are not inherently better than any other game someone on a phone might be playing. Reading the newspaper is not better than reading the news on a phone. Looking up directions on a city map is not better than doing it on a phone.

These are all perfectly acceptable, healthy, stimulating and/or necessary activities, and doing them on a phone does not mean that you suddenly lack a brain. It just means that you have streamlined the process so that you can do all of those things on one single device that can also help you communicate quickly and easily with your friends. Huzzah!

3. Smart Phones Do Everything

Additionally, people are not spending too much time on their phones. They are spending the same amount of time doing the same things that they use to do, but now they can do all of those things on their phones. Before you judge somebody for excessive phone use, you have to take all the time people use to spend doing things like reading and checking maps for directions and perusing the sports section, and add them all up. Many things can be done on a single device nowadays, and that is why people spend so much time on their phones. When you see somebody on their phone, they are actively engaged in an activity. They’re not just sitting there staring at a blank screen.

4. Smart Phones Do Not Keep You from Enjoying the Moment

This argument is the stupidest of all, because it of course begs the question: what are you, not on your smart phone, doing that makes “the moment” so enjoyable? Is your life really so fulfilled that you have room to criticize others for not enjoying theirs? Because it seems to me like you’re just complaining about how other people choose to live their lives, and that can’t be very fulfilling.

Yes, it is true that having the Internet in your pocket can sometimes make it hard to really relax. You feel that buzz and know that there’s an email waiting, and it can be a challenge not to check it sometimes. That was my main reluctance back before I had a smart phone, and it’s part of the reason that I sometimes leave my phone at home or turn it to silent. But worry, stress and distraction are all inevitable without the presence of a smart phone, too. Before I had a smart phone, I spent just as much time wondering if I had any emails as I now do actually checking my email (both relatively small amounts of time).

And yes, there are people who literally never put their phones down. Some people take their phones into the shower with them (no, really). But those people are in the minority. There will always be people who over-do it with any technology; that doesn’t reflect on the technology itself. And, more importantly, it is not a sign of a coming social crisis.

One of the anecdotes I hear most often from smart-phone-fear-mongers is the same story, over and over again, about how one time they saw a bunch of kids hanging out, but they were all on their phones. This image gets repeated because it’s the epitome of all the above arguments: a bunch of kids not engaging with the world because they have their noses buried in a screen.

But here’s the thing: I’ve been one of those kids in a whole group of texters, and I promise you–it is not what it looks like. Usually if everybody has their heads down like that, it’s because either some big event happened and we’re all tracking the news (don’t tell me my generation isn’t politically engaged), or we’re all about to leave and want to make sure everybody who was planning to meet us knows where we’re going. Or, occasionally, it might be because somebody said something awkward and pretending to text is less uncomfortable than just sitting in silence.

Just because somebody’s way of interacting with the world doesn’t look like yours does not mean that they are somehow lesser. Smart phone users are not zombies. They are complex, intelligent, and multi-faceted human beings trying to run their lives as efficiently as possible, using the best technology available to them.

Vapidly yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“This intellectual condition is characterized by a brain incapable of normal working … in a large measure due to the hurry and excitement of modern life, with its facilities for rapid locomotion and almost instantaneous communication between remote points of the globe….” –The Churchman, Volume 71, 1895, via XKCD

*For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not owning or wanting to own a smart phone. I didn’t adopt the technology myself until quite recently, and there are tons of totally valid reasons to not want one, including the exorbitant expense. But don’t try to argue that not owning one makes you a fuller and more in-touch human being, because you’re kidding yourself.

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2 thoughts on “This is Not the Zombie Apocalypse”

  1. I can’t say I’m too surprised people view older forms of communication as inherently better; that’s happened every single time something new comes out. “Email isn’t personal like a hand-written letter,” “when it’s really important you don’t call on the phone, you send a telegram,” or my personal favorite, “written words make man lazy because he doesn’t have to memorize things anymore.”

    Having said that, it’s unfortunate that what used to be a forty minute debate on exactly which episode and character Teri Hatcher played in Star Trek: Next Generation, is now a 40 second “Let me look it up on my phone!” Smartphones have changed interactions, and it’s my nature to be nostalgic. :)

    1. It’s sad how often “new” is equated with “worse,” but nostalgia is a hard bug to squish. It’s really just the “get off my lawn” argument, re-packaged for the next generation. Everyone thinks the kids are doing it wrong. I just hope I remember that when I’m one of the old folks, so that I don’t perpetuate the behavior.

      I like that we now have the ability to look up specifics and settle those kinds of debates in an instant. It leaves more time to talk about things that are actually worth debating, like the social implications of whatever happened in the episode. There will always be things to fight about, and I’d rather argue over gray areas than hard facts. Although I can’t deny how satisfying it is to be able to prove yourself right with a google search. :D

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