I Give Up: Electronic Etiquette is a Lost Cause

Over the last year or two I sometimes noticed individual colleagues sporadically checking their phones for texts and messages during meetings.* I found it puzzling since we insist that students unplug during class.

Then last week I went to a meeting of Washington State’s Education Deans. Suffice to say, between a third and half of everyone was working on their phones and/or laptops during all of our conversations. Thirty people around one large conference table, a dean, state legislator, or school district superintendent talking, and 10-15 people unabashedly reading and sending texts and emails.

That’s a critical mass of distracted participants who’ve given in to the tyranny of the urgent. They’re partly sitting around the conference table and partly back in their offices. Half present at both or half absent?

That query suggests what they’re doing is wrong, but it’s too late in the Information Revolution for that conclusion. It is what it is. Don’t look for me to put any of the toothpaste back in the tube. It’s up to Sherry Turkle. I’m waving a white flag.

A month ago I was in an hour long committee meeting with about eight colleagues from across campus. We were sitting around a smallish conference table in Xavier (for those Lutes keeping score at home). I was distracted by an IT/Librarian colleague who wouldn’t take his eyes of his laptop screen. Fifty five of the sixty minutes. It was as impressive a feat of anti-social disconnectedness as I had ever seen.

Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.