Out of Touchscreen: An Addiction To Handheld Devices

written by Aaron Chapman

“Put your phone down, idiot. The light is green.” I say it every day. You just know it’s Justin Bieber silencing my honks, or Selena Gomez. Are they still dating? The driver is young, looking down at the microcosm in her hands. At first I think she’s fallen asleep. No, it’s just the posture of our generation.  

Arriving at a red traffic light is a great opportunity to see our species in the wild. We squirm after seconds of being stationary. What to do? Are we too afraid to be alone with our real selves that we need to chime into social media for the whole of one minute? Generally, we’re woken by the horn of the car behind. Today is different. As I come into her periphery in the outside lane, her foot hits the floor. She’s gone. Gone until the next light.

American photographer, Eric Pickersgill’s photographic series ‘Removed.Social’ explores the inseparable connection to our phones and other devices by removing them from each image. Haunting stuff. A sign of the times. Some of Pickersgill’s images include a woman driving into oncoming traffic while she reads from her phone, or hand; and a family of four huddling around the dinner table, the parents and children fixated on where their phones and tablets would be. By removing the devices from the image, Pickersgill depicts an eerie zombie-like landscape that comments on how this supposed connection is really just a form of disconnection from basic human interactions. I’m sure several personal scenarios spring to mind. Lunch with friends is always a good one. Cool new café. But the only eye contact and exchange of words occurring is aimed at bringing others’ attentions to some peculiar video on Facebook. 

There’s no doubt that these technological advances have greatly benefited humankind. On the other hand, since their invention, we might’ve found the true use for our opposable thumbs. I have a phone, and I’ll probably use it to promote the publication of this rant on social media. A pile of ideas for this article still rests comfortably in Notes on my iPhone. They’re legible, too. 

But is there a happy medium of socially accepted phone use? Self-imposed restrictions perhaps. I can’t help but imagine that one day a new kind of law enforcement will be at work. Phone police. But their duties don’t involve fining, arresting or brutality … well, physical brutality at least. On journeys through shopping centres or through the busy streets of town, you’re bound to have someone nearly walk into you. If your eyes are up you’ll see him or her, walking towards you with earphones in and eyes down, possessed by the poisonous bitten apple. They’re vulnerable. Don’t you just want to scare the absolute shit out of them and say, “Look where you’re going!” If the phone police wore hockey masks and publicly shamed me, I’d probably think twice before trawling while travelling. Next time, I’d look up and around at the town and the citizens that make it the city I live in. And as a photographer, isn’t that the point?

Is the wonder of childhood still possible today? Children sitting around the dinner table with their tablet will never know the joys of being a kid. Where do their imaginations lead them now? Down another Temple Run? Into the lost and destructive landscapes home to Angry Birds? I sound old, I know. Maybe I’m just envious. Younger generations will never know the pain, as Instagram’s @thefatjewish claims, of giving your Windows 95 computer a highly infectious disease just to download a couple tracks off LimeWire. They’ll never know the pure joy either of deftly lacing a metre-long Snake through a black and white brick of a Nokia 3315. I’m glad they’ll never play Snake because if they did, I’m sure they’d smash our records given they’re dexterous enough to swipe phones in their first few years of life. 

As a parent, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. My first phone was an Alcatel, a hand-me-down from my brother at 15. The thing had a sharp antenna that used to stab my leg down on the ovals at lunchtime. I am mentally preparing myself for the barrage of anger my child will give me when I deny them the privilege of having a phone at an early age. “Ah, Dad. But all the other kids have them.”

On a more positive note, fans of George Orwell’s 1984 will be happy to know that the younger generation have fully embraced Newspeak, a once-fictional language with limited grammar and vocabulary designed to squander any independent thought. Lol. Obviously Orwell was a little premature titling his masterpiece 1984. It’s now 2017 but the social anxieties are still as relevant as they were at time of its publication in 1949. Aldous Huxley also wrote extensive dystopian fiction and his novels, Brave New World and The Island (a movie starring Scarlett Johansson) both comment on human conditioning. 

Since I’m throwing out some big literary guns, I’ll add Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and author of Walden: A Walk in the Woods. The premise of the book is a documentative telling of Thoreau’s two years spent living in a log cabin on poet friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property up in Massachusetts. For two years he lived alone, writing about his connection with nature, how little he spent living frugally. He even penned a remarkably inspiring essay titled ‘Walking’. Yeah, it’s about walking. Have a read and tell me you’re not going for a stroll. Thoreau was also an alleged homosexual and recent literature on the wise man accuses him of instead hiding in the woods, rendering all of his earthly wisdom superfluous. Seriously. WTF. Walden was published in 1854. Times were different. Instead of finding the positives in Thoreau’s transcendent experiences, they’ve been belittled almost 200 years later. Who of us has lived alone by a pond in a log cabin for two years? Why aren’t we all living by ponds? Out of WiFi range? We don’t need to embark on journeys of self-discovery. We know exactly who we are. We are exactly what our profiles portray us to be. Thoreau kept a secret. He wrote one of the greatest books of all time, but screw him, he kept a secret! Let’s discredit him further. I, on the other hand, bench press 200 pounds and am a hugely successful entrepreneur. 

It’s a world made dangerous by the lives we lead and the path we’re heading. Our world consists of how people perceive us. A selfie taken in Fiji places you on the Internet or on phones, not in Fiji. Be there. A friend of mine once called social media ‘a great prostitute of interconnectivity’. Is he not right? 

When I set about writing this article, I wanted to challenge what are quickly becoming societal norms. Devices are an essential part of daily life. I’d be lost without my emails and Internet banking in one handy location. But it’s all too easy to scroll a feed and see what we’re missing from our humdrum lives. The younger generations aren’t to be blamed because we’ve conditioned them to accept that devices are just extensions of our upper extremities. Have you seen Her starring Joaquin Phoenix? Woah. We should be doing everything we can to avoid having awkward sexual relations with computers in the future. Let’s try and make a change. Let’s leave our phones warming in our pockets. Let’s bring them out to make an important phone call, not to fill the void left by our silence.