Being present

September 29, 2013    aesthetic-experience

I commute by bicycle every day. Because my safety depends on my extreme vigilance of both motorists and pedestrians, I spend a somewhat considerable amount of time and energy every day carefully observing the behavior of other people on the road and sidewalks.

A few weeks ago, as I was biking across a college campus, it struck me that nearly every single pedestrian I passed was looking at their smartphone as they walked. Similarly, I would judge that about half of the drivers I see at any given intersection are glancing down at a phone when stopped at a light. Many appear to continue looking at their phones for a few moments even once the light turns green, guided, I can only presume, by their peripheral vision of the taillights of the car in front of them.

While both of these observations make me very nervous as a cyclist, I think they also illustrate a deeper concern of mine: we are, as a society, ever less present. That is, our minds are elsewhere; our attention is dispersed around the internet by our smartphones and tablets.

So why do I find this so problematic? And what is there to do about it?

First, I should probably come clean. I don’t own a smartphone myself. Maybe the allure of such a device–of being hyper-connected to my social networks, or receiving notifications for every this and that, or have Google at my fingertips wherever I go–is simply beyond my understanding.

I’ll grant that I don’t fully understand the smartphone experience, but only if I can allow the corollary: that the more attention people give to their phones, the less they experience the real world around them. Taken alone, it’s a no-brainer–we have limited amounts of attention, so spending it on one thing means there is less available for everything else–but it has greater implications when we think about the trend toward greater connectivity at all moments of our lives.

What are we, as a society, missing out on if we experience everything mediated through our phones? At the very least, our shared experience of place must be rapidly transforming.

As a teacher and late-adopter, I think of this as a professional challenge. I want to encourage others to live here, and to have authentic experiences. This is just one area in which object-based education can really play an important role in countering the ways in which our experiences are being decentralized, dehumanized, and diluted.