The other day, I was lucky enough to spot a pod of dolphins swimming along the San Francisco coast.
This was the second time in just a couple months that my friend Stephen and I delighted in a visitation from dolphins at Baker Beach, startlingly close to shore, within view of the Golden Gate Bridge, frolicking with the sea lions.
As we giggled and squealed with joy, we couldn't help but notice that, among the forty or so other people at this beach with us, very few (maybe two or three?) actually noticed the dolphins. Stephen and I kept looking at each other in disbelief. How could they be missing this? I suppose we both falsely assumed that all beachgoers gaze meditatively, in awe and wonder, out into the ocean's expanse. Nope.
From our vantage, though it appeared our fellow beach-pilgrims had overlooked the display of marine life presenting itself to them, they certainly hadn't neglected to pay lots of attention to their smartphones. Rather than, say, capturing images of dolphins or sea lions, several folks were snapping jaunty self-portraits or goofy snapshots of their pals, most likely for instant upload to the web, photographic proof that, yes, they had been to Baker Beach that day. See, there's the sand. See, there's the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead of silently contemplating the breadth and variety of nature, the mysterious intelligence of dolphin life, or the personally significant poignancies of having lucked into such an up-close sighting, some were doubtlessly fingertapping texts or tweets or status updates to their hundreds of friends: 'At beach. Pretty scenery.'
Not that I can be sure of what exactly these abstract 'others' were doing only that their eyes were directed downward at portable electronic devices, into the cyberworld's alternate reality, and not out at the incredible environment around them, at least not attentively enough to detect the dolphins nearby.
Are my ponderings here devolving from dolphin praise to a whiny woe-fest against technology's inevitable advance, and especially its latest proliferation of personal pocket-gadgets combining phone, camera, music-player and mini-computer? I'd like to take exception to the 'whiny' part, yet I can't help but crave a venting of my angst on this topicnot because I think the devices themselves are bad (on the contrary: they're amazing), but due to the apparent negative impact they've had on people's attention levels.
I regularly worry about this effect on our collective evolution, in terms of the decline of social etiquette and, worse, the potential hazards of not paying attention when each other's physical safety is at stake. It is insulting enough that, for instance, it's become commonplace for customers at a check-out counter to continue chit-chatting or texting on their mobile phones, as if the individual helping them from the other side of the counter is not a person worthy of basic human considerateness. It's altogether more serious, however, when somebody is so consumed with what's happening on their phone, they aren't watching as they navigate busy sidewalks or shopping-center corridors. How many times in the past year have I nearly been bumped into by a perpetrator of facebooking-while-walking? (Far too many.) And don't get me started on texting-while-driving
Recently, when behind the wheel, I actually began a practice of staring maddeningly into the cars of drivers who drift across their lane, move suspiciously slowly, or otherwise behave as if not totally aware. Nearly every time, I spied drivers playing with their phones, looking into their devices rather than out at the road. So enraged does this make me, I'd find myself honking at them to redirect their attention. Then, when they looked upif, that is, they bothered to notice the honking at allI'd wag a shaming finger at them, as if I'm the one-man no-texting-while-driving police force. I'm trying to move away from this admittedly risky behavior: Not only am I wasting energy on what feels like a losing battle, I'll never know in advance which shamed stranger might react with a crazed road-rage incident (this is California, after all). Still, I am appalled by how casually a person I don't know will risk both our lives by immersing him/herself in some presumably trivial (at least relative to the importance of life itself) bit of wireless data. My only power in such situations is to pay even closer attention myself, in counterbalance.
So when did I become a technophobic luddite, crotchety with my complaints against progress, nostalgic like a grandfather for those vague abstract 'salad days' before the advent of VCRs or electric typewriters? I'm not that old, and it wasn't so long ago (before astrology became my career) when I intended to become a cultural-studies professor, espousing the merits of television (of all things!) as a tool for teaching critical thinking and writing. That's right: I was, and have been, a huge advocate and consumer of TV, another technology long derided as similarly making people more stupid and zombielike. Have I, then, simply succumbed to that dreaded trend of becoming more 'conservative' (whatever that means) as I age?
My main premise in defending TV was always that the medium, like any piece of technology, is itself neutral in social value; rather, it's how we use it that determines its relative benefit or detriment. Of course TV content always teems with simplifications and stereotypes, and, thanks to entrenched corporate control, is inextricably permeated with ideological motives that hegemonically support status-quo capitalist interests. That mouthful aside, TV also offers us a remarkable glimpse into a culture's current myths and archetypes reflections of ourselves ripe for deconstruction, commentary, user reappropriation and other creative improvisations. The difference comes from whether we passively consume or actively engage. That's why I strive to make TV-watching as socially interactive as possible, keeping only one set in the house wherever I live.
That's not to say, of course, I don't spend plenty of solitary hours inertly absorbing the TV's warm bright glow, while still insisting I haven't become any dumber as a result. Perhaps I might assuage myself of guilt by concluding, since my TV-watching occurs in private space, it doesn't have nearly the same negative impact on others (except my partner) as excessively playing with one's cellphone in public, where the lack of attention threatens my well-being. Admittedly, while there is some validity in this distinction, it ultimately breaks down: We might defend either practice under the auspices of personal freedom (e.g., 'I can do whatever I want; it's none of your business'), with public texting and twittering only one step further down the path to total individuation through media. If the distracted driver doesn't collide with me, is it my business what they do inside their vehicle?
The irony of such Aquarian-Age developments? It's easier than ever to connect with like-minded folks from all over the globe, thanks to technology, yet as we fit ever more comfortably into that cyber-niche, we become increasingly disconnected from the miscellany of people (and dolphins) comprising our immediate scope of physical reality. We tell ourselves it's 'nobody's business but ours' whether we converse loudly on our cellphones in public or text or tweet while driving, how much we eat or drink, whether we spend beyond our means, what exactly is written on our protest signs, whether we voted in this latest election. All the while, while we're pretty much 'free' to do what we want, there are social costs we together pay for such freedoms, sooner or later.
Meanwhile, as we split apart and scatter our attentions across a wide field of megabyte distractions, our mindfulness goes out the window. We discuss crucial emotional matters via text message. We draw political conclusions based on repetitions of watertight marketing messages (a.k.a. propaganda). We miss what's right in front of our faces, in order to navel-gaze. In an age that will undoubtedly continue to bombard us with glittering new devices and ten thousand more ways to decimate an attention-span, our challenges to retain a spiritually-conscious collective awareness will increasejust as our planet will increasingly require such a consciousness from us.
In case this was unclear, let me clarify: I am grateful to technology for countless reasons. Thanks to the internet, I have my career, my partner and my dog, and so many friends and acquaintances (you included) I otherwise wouldn't. I feel privileged to be alive to witness this amazing human achievement. Yet, as I observe fast-paced societal evolution in our relation to electronic devices, I simultaneously worry about its effect on our social responsibility to each other, face to face, body to body, in this realm of physicality, with its limits.
In the past couple months, I've started to strive for more consciousness in when, where and how I use my tech toolsif for no other reason than my desire not to wake up one day, after decades of remaining ceaselessly plugged in, only to discover I've missed out on sights and sounds, relationships and experiences that, despite our species' genius, cannot yet be appreciated and enjoyed over a digital screen.
(Yes, I took these dolphin photos myself but not in SF on the day I described above. These were taken off the coast of Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand, Nov 2009. And yes, I swam with them, too. It was amazing.)