221. This is the number of times a day we check our phones once we get out of bed. It breaks down to an average of every 4.3 minutes, according to a UK study. Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. I was on the subway in Hong Kong last month and everybody (pretty much 95%) was staring at their phones.
What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? For me it means frustration when people in front of me suddenly just stop and send a text on the sidewalk.
In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle, clinical psychologist and sociologist, presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as with colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking. Everyone is distracted from whatever they are engaged in—yes, including the nanny who is supposed to look after the toddler even within the confine of the library. She’s engaged on the phone that she doesn’t notice the toddler has wandered away.
Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves. She argues that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one’s parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Absorption in the virtual world can become a flight from difficulties of real life. In a way, they are alone on the devices but not really. Because they aren’t learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability empathize. It’s the capacity for solitude hat allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. This is what independent travel does to a person as he/she has the opportunity to absorb and reflect on his own.
Which brings the larger picture that is not exclusive to teenagers. The curated image of self. The tendency to craft a more rosy picture than in reality. Without an ability to look inward, with a vanity to show off, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting and fabricating their identities for others.