Will We Ever Switch Them off?

I’d love to see what would happen if all mobile phones went dead. 

I’m sat in a cafe contemplating this as I observe an awkward scene. People watching is one of life’s virtues, especially when hidden behind a laptop screen. One quickly learns the strategies. Leaning over and craning your neck to eavesdrop in conversation is not entirely subtle. The trick is in the eyes. Learning to quickly divert your gaze from the scene in front of you to the screen of your laptop is the first step towards successful snooping.

I’m watching a couple on a date. It’s going well. They’ve so far managed to order their coffee, and say a few words to each other. Ten minutes later, these words still hang in the air like a bad smell. No progression has been made. Hands reach to cradle their phones. One of them takes a call. The other nonchalantly drinks her coffee, gazing round the room as if to pluck a conversation topic out of the caffeine-fuelled atmosphere.

This is just painful.

Phones provide a justifiable excuse to not speak to each other, a handy tactic when on an awkward date. As young people, we are protected from having to deal with social interaction only by our common propensity to pick up our mobiles and immerse ourselves in Facebook mid-conversation. We just don’t know how to communicate anymore.

Everyone of course talks about the ‘millennial’ generation with contempt. But ultimately, our critics should just feel sorry for us. We are rude and obnoxious; ruthless in our attempts to capture the perfect photo to upload to our social media sites. ‘Likes’ feed our egos more than real-life compliments. GIFS and Memes provide humour where ours has lapsed. We are the avocado-loving, cafe-brunching, news-munching millennials who know nothing of times gone by. We exist in a vacuum, bombarded by the constant flow of information, of which we can’t escape. Armed with a step-by-step account on social media of how we fill our days, our generation are leaving behind us a technological footprint of triviality. Is this all we will have to show for our posterity?

The need to constantly document our lives, however, reveals something a lot more sinister about current social interaction.

Take the prior mentioned date as a case in point. Meeting somebody in the flesh requires a lot more cognitive effort, particularly as their choice to position themselves opposite each other makes them more exposed. In this instance, they have nowhere to hide. Queue the picking up of the mobile phone.

Interacting with a computer is entirely different. A computer does not care about your feelings. When online, one does not have to labour to understand another’s body language, or negotiate with social cues. Instead, our emotions become archetypically summarised in emojis. Virtual interaction removes feelings and emotions. We are, as the world fears, turning ourselves into beings void of the aspects that make us human.

Our self-esteem becomes based on the acquisition, essentially, of strangers who favour our content. Our ‘supposed’ selves, the ones we can perfectly package up and present to our gang of worthy followers online, somehow become more desirable than our actual selves. We come to envy others who are equally as inauthentic. While we know this, we can’t seem to shake the feeling that millions of others out there are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer or just generally more content than we are.

Like everything else in a capitalist society, our sense of self-worth becomes based on acquisition. ‘Likes’, ‘retweets’, ‘favourites’ are currency: we acquire and exchange.

A further frightening aspect of all this is that the more we reveal, the more data we contribute. Companies feed off our online presence, using information about us to tailor their advertisements to our interests, and consequently contribute to this atmosphere of acquisition. I find myself frequently screaming ‘HOW DID YOU KNOW?’ inside my head when my most recent searches on Google appear in my Instagram and Facebook feeds, as if a satellite had somehow supplanted my brain.

It is as if I am competing against a machine that seems to know me better than I know myself. My iPhone can anticipate which emojis I would like to use based on the words I have tapped into a message. It knows all the locations I’ve been in … ever. It knows my exact distance home, the temperature in my room, where I am going to be at certain dates and times and locations. Perhaps at one point it will grow a pair of arms, reach for a stethoscope and conclude after seconds of analysing my heartbeat that I am actually nearly dead prior to my morning coffee.

And yet, what this all essentially boils down to is our generation’s preoccupation with insignificance. We live in a network of spies and informants. Ads are tailored to us based on personal information. Molly from Blackpool knows you’re spending a weekend in Tenerife because of the hashtag you used. Google stalks you at every turn based on your internet searches. Every drip of news is as necessary as the blood flowing through our veins.

It would not surprise me if soon we were diagnosing technological illnesses based on our anxiety to constantly be informed. Perhaps medication will have to be administered to those of us who are addicted to our phones. All joking aside, a period of weaning ourselves off from technology is overdue.

I am actively trying to cut down my time spent on the web before my brain disintegrates. When I find myself having to force myself to read a book – something I have known and loved ever since I can remember – I remind myself of how much I have attuned my brain to autopilot. It’s high time we saved ourselves from becoming machines.

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