If humans are social animals, why is it that we take every opportunity we can to avoid contact with each other?
Take the bus, for example. It’s a sort of unwritten rule on the buses at my university that once you step up from the pavement and cross the yellow line, you need to occupy yourself with something, anything other than the people around you. A book or the world whirring by outside the windows will suffice just fine, but the usual distraction (protective force field?) of choice is a smartphone, usually complete with earbuds. Tuck the little pulsing conch shells into your ears, and suddenly the possibility of having to deal with inconvenient human expectations and bothersome interactions all but disappears, whether you’re on public transit or walking or eating lunch by yourself or studying alone.
About two weeks ago, I broke my earbuds. They were cheap little things, nothing I would miss, but at first I just couldn’t find the time to buy another pair. Not having constant access to my music meant that I had much less use for my phone—3G access is pretty patchy in my city, and 4G is nonexistent—so I had to do other things to fill my time in transit. I read more. I looked around. I interacted and met some pretty interesting people (including one very attractive guy whose name and number it didn’t occur to me to get until after he’d departed the bus. Derp).
During my silent period, I noticed something: no matter where I was, no matter what the weather was like, no matter how many people were around, every single person I saw who wasn’t participating in some activity with a defined purpose was glued to a smart phone. Everyone was so busy using text messages, Facebook, Twitter and who knows what other apps to be social with people who weren’t present that they didn’t even notice the real, flesh-and-blood people around them. I saw people cross gorgeous green spaces and busy streets without even looking up once from their screens. It was absolutely, positively Bradburian.
This is the next pandemic, folks. Dependence on technology for brain stimulation at every waking moment is spreading rapidly across America and throughout the developed world. Soon, if it hasn’t already, it will begin to affect our interpersonal relationships, our sense of adventure and our collective IQ. However, the thing about contagious diseases is that humans eventually find a cure. Polio has a vaccine, strep throat has antibiotics and Bieber fever has, well, Justin Bieber. Curing tech flu will take a little more effort from all of us than just taking a shot, popping a pill or browsing People.com, but it is possible.
Now, some people think that in order to cleanse your life of excessive technology use, you have to get away from it altogether: run away to the woods, chop lumber, and ruminate about self-reliance. Not so, my friends. Some technology use is necessary, and some is genuinely fun and beneficial. You don’t have to emulate Emerson in any way (in fact, please don’t) to get a little better at being where you are instead of living your life in cyberspace. Below, find an easy step-by-step guide to get you from on your phone to in the world.
What is not sucking? Not sucking is defined in the world of battling tech flu as being able to stay conscious of the world around you even if you use technology regularly. (The last six words were unnecessary.)
- Move the phone. You don’t have to move your head. You don’t even need to take out your earbuds. Just slowly (so you don’t startle yourself) move your phone (or tablet, or laptop) to a place where you can’t see the screen and keep your head at the exact same angle, staring where your lit-up LCD screen used to be. Look! Grass! Shoes! Maybe even animals or bugs or small children! How interesting! There was a whole world of stuff hiding behind your screen!
- Stretch your neck. Okay, this one’s a little more difficult: rotate your face a full 180 degrees up. Feel the stretch. It’s been a while, huh? There’s a whole sky up there. Maybe there are clouds. Maybe there are stars. Or maybe it’s just blue. Nice, right? Maybe you can even see some tops of trees. Trees are cool.
- Now, slowly, relax your neck. Don’t startle yourself. Bring your head back down so your chin is parallel to the floor. This is when it gets interesting. There are whole trees, not just tops. There are buildings—some pretty, some ugly, all worth looking at. And then there are people. Have a look at their faces. They move. They make expressions. They say things. It’s like a video but with breath. Observe them for a while. Real-life humans tell some cool stories even if you can’t hear them, using an obsolete form of communication called “body language”. See what you can figure out about people—who’s breaking up with their significant other? Who just got an A on a test? Who’s so distracted by their phone that they run into a telephone pole? (Resist the urge to take a video.)
- Don’t panic. Now we’re gonna bring some auditory stimulation up in here. Ready? Okay: take… out… your… earbuds. WHOA. It’s so quiet out in the world. Listen. There are people moving around. There’s probably some strange rustling. Is that… wind? Does that still happen? Some sounds are ugly—there’s construction, maybe somebody burns their finger on something and curses really loud—but it’s all… interesting. There’s a story here. Go live in it.