David Carr recently wrote a piece in the New York Times where he states,
Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.
The article is about how people are increasingly gazing into little glowing screens when in physical space. Carr views this as a “mass thumb-wrestling competition” where we are “desperately” staring at devices instead of making “actual” connections. And it is his usage of “actual” here that tips us off on why he has such a negative view of people looking at screens: he, like so many others, suffers from digital dualism. I’ve critiqued Amber Case, Jeff Jarvis and others on this blog for failing to make the conceptual leap that the digital sphere is not this separate space like The Matrix but instead that reality is augmented. I’ve been through the argument enough times on this blog that I’ll just refer you to the links and move ahead.
Carr’s digital dualism begins in his description of people looking at phones while at South By Southwest this past spring, something he then uses as evidence for the larger problem of increasing disconnectedness. He argues,
We were adjacent but essentially alone, texting and talking our way through what should have been a great chance to engage flesh-and-blood human beings. The wait in line for panels, badges or food became one more chance to check in digitally instead of an opportunity to meet someone you didn’t know […]It’s not just conferences full of inforati where this happens. In places all over America […]people gather in groups only to disperse into lone pursuits between themselves and their phones.
What Carr might be unaware of is the vast amount of research that demonstrates being digitally connected is also related to being connected with people offline. Checking in digitally might facilitate precisely that offline opportunity Carr assumes it precludes. The glowing screen does not always indicate “a lone pursuit,” but often quite the opposite.
Perhaps another reason Carr views glowing screens so negatively is revealed in the title of the panel he moderated at SXSW: “I’m So Productive, I Never Get Anything Done,” which is about how the Internet has distracted us to the point we do not have time to do the work we get paid for. This makes me think: you’re doing it wrong.
Yes, digital tools can distract us too much. And when this happens we need to use those tools differently. Similarly, Carr mentions people who start typing on their phone when he is talking to them and how much that annoys him. The solution seems simple: If you do not like being around people who are always on their phones, don’t be around those people who are always on their phones.
People always had and will continue to have bad manners. The question is whether social media and mobile phones have caused a social epidemic of bad manners. While I do often become annoyed at the way people use technology in public, I do not share Carr’s bias for seeing glowing screens as people being a-social and distant and in some separate reality. Quite the opposite, I view it as them sharing their digital connections in physical space, navigating socially through our augmented reality.
In sum, Carr makes the same mistake as the film The Social Network: blaming all of social media for the actions of the few rude and socially inept users, be they Mark Zuckerberg or that annoying blue-lit person in your bar group who won’t put the phone away.