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Smartphones Are Killing Us — and Destroying Public Life

Hey, you -- look up! Our iPhone addictions are wrecking public spaces and fraying the urban social fabric.
 
 
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An Apple Store customer looks at the new iPhone 5C and 5S in Palo Alto on September 20, 2013. Apple said it sold a record nine million iPhones in the three days after launching two new versions of the smartphone.

 

 

The host collects phones at the door of the dinner party. At a law firm, partners maintain a no-device policy at meetings. Each day, a fleet of vans assembles outside New York’s high schools, offering, for a small price, to store students’ contraband during the day. In situations where politeness and concentration are expected, backlash is mounting against our smartphones.

In public, of course, it’s a free country. It’s hard to think of a place beyond the sublime darkness of the movie theater where phone use is shunned, let alone regulated. (Even the cinematic exception is  up for debate.) At restaurants, phones occupy that choice tablecloth real estate once reserved for a pack of cigarettes. In truly public space — on sidewalks, in parks, on buses and on trains — we move face down, our phones cradled like amulets.

No observer can fail to notice how deeply this development has changed urban life. A deft user can digitally enhance her experience of the city. She can study a map; discover an out-of-the-way restaurant; identify the trees that line the block and the architect who designed the building at the corner. She can photograph that building, share it with friends, and in doing so contribute her observations to a digital community. On her way to the bus (knowing just when it will arrive) she can report the existence of a pothole and check a local news blog.

It would be unfair to say this person isn’t engaged in the city; on the contrary, she may be more finely attuned to neighborhood history and happenings than her companions. But her awareness is secondhand: She misses the quirks and cues of the sidewalk ballet, fails to make eye contact, and limits her perception to a  claustrophobic one-fifth of normal. Engrossed in the virtual, she really isn’t here with the rest of us.

Consider the case of a recent murder on a San Francisco train. On Sept. 23, in a crowded car, a man pulls a pistol from his jacket. In Vivian Ho’s  words: “He raises the gun, pointing it across the aisle, before tucking it back against his side. He draws it out several more times, once using the hand holding the gun to wipe his nose. Dozens of passengers stand and sit just feet away — but none reacts. Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet into the back of a San Francisco State student getting off the train.”

 

The incident is a powerful example of the sea change that public space has suffered in the age of hand-held computing. There are thousands of similar stories, less tragic, more common, that together sound the alarm for a new understanding of public space – one that accounts for the pervasiveness of glowing rectangles.

The glut of information technology separating us from our surroundings extends well beyond our pocket computers. “Never has distraction had such capacity to become total,” writes the urban theorist Malcolm McCullough in “Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information.” “Enclosed in cars, often in headphones, seldom in places where encounters are left to chance, often opting out of face-to-face meetings, and ever pursuing and being pursued by designed experiences, post-modern post urban city dwellers don’t become dulled into retreat from public life; they grow up that way. The challenge is to reconnect.”

McCullough sees ambient information, from advertisements to the music in shops to Taxi TV, as an assault on our attention. But he’s no Luddite, and he’s not oblivious to the powerful ideas that spring from the shared ground of technology and urbanism, like Citizen Science, SeeClickFix or “Smart Cities.” What he’s calling for, in Ambient Commons, is “information environmentalism,” the idea that the proliferation of embedded information deserves attention and study, from planners, architects, politicians and especially from you and me.

 
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