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Tunnel vision

Wall Boat

A picture in the newspaper caught my attention. It showed the broad steps of some government or institutional building, with a crowd of mostly young people walking down. There were 59 figures in all — I counted them — and every single one without exception was gazing at a smart phone.

The accompanying article by Ezra Klein was, not surprisingly, about the many ways that the internet is shaping and mis-shaping our lives, so there’s no news there. Just about every social commentator has written about this, notably Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman. But it’s hard to find anything new to say. Twitter makes people angry and rude. Instagram makes them paranoid and fearful. And Facebook overwhelms them with the sheer weight of three billion individuals struggling to claim their moment of attention in the wired world.

When smart phones put the internet in everyone’s pocket — and what a stroke of marketing genius that was — these expensive gadgets acquired magnetic power. Owners couldn’t look away from them, checked them constantly day and night, and suffered breakdowns if their phone was lost or stolen. The sight of someone walking, jogging, pushing a stroller, or even driving with a phone in front of their face became commonplace. The Japanese have even given them a name: “The heads down crowd.”

I assumed, as I think most people did, that the habit would just fade away like the craze for carrying water bottles or wearing backward baseball caps. It was reasonable to suppose that the casualty statistics from phone users walking into lamp posts or trees, falling down open manholes and wandering obliviously into traffic would soon be enough to persuade the survivors to lift their heads and pay attention to their surroundings. But it hasn’t worked, or at least not yet, as illustrated by this newspaper photograph of 59 people walking down a long flight of steps — a perilous activity in itself — without being able to look away from their screens.

The baffling thing for me and millions of other non-addicts was that we could not understand what was on those tiny screens that was so utterly absorbing. Although the gadgets are called smartphones, they seem to be rarely used as telephones at all, but as a gateway to a whole world of distractions which seem almost designed to cause people to walk into lamp posts. My wife finally gave me a smartphone in case I had an emergency away from home, even though I always take care to have my emergencies at home. This gift, once I had learned how to switch it on, allowed me to see at last what so many people find so fascinating. It seems to be a rather prosaic world of games, commercial websites, photos of yourself and your friends, movies, silly jokes, news, weather, fake news, fake weather, misinformation, gambling sites and stock market reports (much the same thing), and primitive forms of communication like SMS and Twitter. I had hoped to see something more worthy of the technological genius that goes into creating these phones.

But it’s a circus, that’s what it is, a miniature three-ring circus in your hand with all the traditional entertainments: funny clowns, sad clowns, acrobats, freaks, performing animals, ancient jokes, simple conjuring tricks, and transparent disguises. It’s a circus and who doesn’t love to go to the circus?

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.