Sunday, January 31, 2016

In Defense of Awkward Moments: A Measured Response to Héctor Carral

By: Geoffrey Ledbetter   
         If you’re human*, it’s likely you’ve encountered this situation before: You’re having a social interaction with someone, and suddenly the conversation trails off and you are left standing around awkwardly, unsure of how to proceed. Quick! What do you do? Pull the old "what in the world can that be?!" trick and disappear? Pull a Fred Flinstone and "yabba dabba doo" right outta there? Or, more probably, do you instead pull out your phone and pretend you have just received a text message that requires your immediate attention? Yes, in this day and age, the phone has become the all-purpose tool for escaping even the slightest possibility of social awkwardness. Today, individuals stare intently into their screens, insulating themselves in their own little worlds as they sit in class, wait for appointments, or ride public transportation. Indeed, these miraculous devices seem to grant them "awkward moment insurance" and allow them to avoid the mere possibility they might be left in a lurch and lost in a search for the words to say. Now, as Héctor Carral rightly says in his defense of social media technologies, smartphones are not destroying society or ruining our lives. However, the ubiquitous presence of smartphones does seem to promote acts of civil inattention by preventing possible interactions that could lead to lasting and meaningful social relationships. Those tiny little awkward moments are part of being human, and the ability to successfully navigate them by continuing the conversation or changing the subject is a skill that can only be cultivated through experience. (I admit, I don’t guarantee this last bit. I’m still plenty awkward in social situations, and I’ve been through tons of them. Still, in theory…)
         One of the main premises of Carral’s argument is that smartphones are instruments for communication, and this is indeed true. However, the question must be asked: Are people really using their devices to communicate with other, long-distance partners, or are they using them to scroll through Buzzfeed lists, Pinterest menus, or online shopping sites? An average glance around me on any given day in a lecture class instills a sincere skepticism that people are truly using their smartphones for meaningful social interactions. Rather than being used as a medium of communication, smartphones are frequently employed as a distraction from the mundane and a protection from the awkward. 
Dear Mr. Carral, please stop using this photo to suggest reading newspapers is the same as using smartphones to avoid social interactions. Newspapers are not smartphones.
          Carral further argues that there is nothing wrong with creating a permanent memento of experiences by documenting them with their smartphones, which I might be able to concede. However, issues arise when people start to experience the world purely through their screens. When people become so invested in documenting their lives by filming the concerts they’re attending or photographing the mountain vistas they are observing, they frequently do so at the expense of simply experiencing life. (Don’t take my word that this is bad. Esteemed social commentator and cultural critic Louis CK agrees!)
          In essence, while smartphones are not destroying society, they significantly impact our interactions with strangers and allow us to cocoon ourselves in our own little social worlds. The solutions, it seems, are rather simple: Talk to that person sitting next to you on the bus. Take a moment to simply take in the world rather than Instagramming it. Evaluate your intentions for absentmindedly scrolling through social media. Don’t be a Glasshole™ Smartphone responsibly.

Speaking of Glassholes...
(Fast forward to 2:01 for real commentary on the implications of Google Glass on social interactions.)

*If you’re not human, I tip my hat to you for either having achieved self-awareness (if you are a robot), or for having mastered the English language (if you are an extraterrestrial). Good job.

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