Putting the phone back on the cradle

How smartphones are invading our relationships, distracting us from each other and lowering our standards for social interaction.

Valentina Fung/Staff

I’ve been learning how to develop apps on Android phones for several months now, and it’s been a blast. I own two smartphones (iPhone and Google Nexus S), an iPad, and two laptops (one for emergencies). You might say I’m a techie. And since I’m a mobile app developer (I work for a small mobile app company), you might say I really like smartphones.

But I don’t. Actually, I describe my relationship with smartphones as love-hate.

Lately I’ve noticed couples sitting in restaurants looking at their iPhones and texting other people (hey, maybe that’s why they’re perfect for each other?). I see friends having drinks with each other, but also looking up NCAA scores on their phones. Or maybe they’re checking email. Does anybody sit and look the other person in the eye anymore?

Smartphones are wedging us apart!

Ironically, I’m writing this note on Facebook — the epitome of connected disconnectedness. We tweet and send status updates to a diffuse cloud, and perhaps a handful of our known friends — the ones you know in person, at least — will see it.

I highly recommend the TED Talk “Connected, but alone?” by Dr. Sherry Turkle, a social studies professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Turkle talks about how we are allowing technology to fundamentally change the way we interact with people. She also argues that we’re lowering our standards, and accepting a person’s divided attention as good enough.

Smartphones are great. They let you access information when you need it, out in the real world. A subway map, an important phone call, and your calendar are always accessible to you. I think, however, we need to practice discipline in preventing smartphones from becoming social media. And we especially need to prevent ourselves from adopting a fragmented, undisciplined method of social interaction in the real world. Talking to someone face-to-face across a table is an incredibly undervalued experience. Texts let you connect via emoticon, but in-person interactions let you connect with the sum of human expression.

The time we have together is finite, and very limited. Let’s put away the phones and have real conversations in person, without distractions.

Nick Lee is a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.