There are a lot of things wrong with this video. Many have called it beautiful and inspiring, and others have called it overly sentimental and hypocritical. Yes, it is overly sentimental, as the romantic life of a young couple playing out in the beautiful, magical world we call “RL/real life” (now even more perfect and wonderful without the existence of smartphones). It’s also somewhat hypocritical, as it didn’t get 37 million views by getting people to shut off their phones and go to the park. But I’m not concerned with that part. Any video only gains this level of viral status by being shared via social media. It doesn’t really matter to me that people had to look down at their phones for 5 minutes to take in this meaningful life-lesson.
What I take issue with is the content of the poem itself. It took me a while to get through the whole thing, as I would pause it every few seconds to jot down the what I felt were the most problematic lines. Many parts made me frustrated, but I’m actually grateful that this video exists. Even more so than the “I Forgot My Phone” video by Charlene DeGuzman, this video encapsulates everything that is wrong with how the mainstream media views handheld devices, connectivity, and the RL/VR digital divide.
Let me start off by saying that while this probably wasn’t Gary Turke’s intention, this video is actually kind of offensive. By offensive, I mean that he overtly declares over and over again that what people do with their wearable/handheld technologies, their mind-body extension devices, is not “real.” He begins by targeting social media, claiming: “This media we call social is anything but, when we open our computers and it’s our doors we shut.” Immediately, Turke is taking a stance that defines “social” as something very specific, something very extroverted, ultimately suggesting that being social via a technological device isn’t really being social at all. He’s saying that social interactions only happen in face-to-face circumstances.
What, then, would he say to someone chatting via e-mail with a friend who isn’t able to visit? Or maybe, someone communicating via Skype to their family members on the other side of the world, whose faces they normally would not be able to see, and whose voices they would not be able to hear otherwise? Are those not social interactions? During this clip in the poem, which features a girl shutting her door to go on her computer, Turke misses something huge. The girl closes her door and gets on her computer, but she’s not interacting with her computer. She’s interacting with someone and/or multiple people in another space, and the device is mediating that experience in order to make it possible. Who’s to say that by opening her door and letting her roommates in, she’s going to have a more meaningful experience than the one she’s trying have through a different mode of communication?
This is what we call a “digital divide” – the idea that what occurs in the digital realm, in cyberspace, in a technologically mediated environment, isn’t real life. Real life is seen as the flesh and blood, face-to-face conversations that one has with their physically-able body. This is something many people don’t talk about – is the hearing and/or speech impaired person communicating via text not having a “real” conversation with the receiver, just because they choose to use a technological device to aid them in that interaction? There’s plenty more I can say about that, but I’ll leave that to another time.
Turke tells us that our technology is “just an illusion,” and that we should “step away from this device of delusion.” By delusion, he likely means that we as social media users can become a bit deluded into believing that what we broadcast to the world is always important. With the rise of Youtube channels, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. we tend to view our everyday tasks, thoughts and experiences as spreadable, sharable knowledge that others would want to know. This is a bit delusional, as it suggests an inflated sense of self-importance, but there’s also the question of whether the people out there reading our updates are sharing in an intimate experience with us. I think that in many cases they are, and that that itself isn’t a delusional idea. Many people seek refuge in online forums and in chat and text windows to talk about experiences they may not feel comfortable sharing with others in person, and this is particularly true with teens.
Turke says that when we’re using our phones to communicate, “we all share our best bits but leave out the emotion.” Really? While it’s true that emotional inflections are difficult to pick up on via text messages, the emotions are still very much there, albeit in subtler ways that have nothing to do with vocal intonation and/or volume. “Textspeak” has slowly developed a stylization of its own, and there are certain cues that can imply a tone of voice (not to mention often over-used emoticons). I think that Turke’s inability to see how emotions come across via technological interactions says a lot about his overall argument – that when we use technology, we become robotic drones, incapable of any human feelings or emotional output.
It’s a common criticism of technology that our world has become one where “we’re slaves to the technology we’ve mastered,” and Turke makes sure to tell us just how not in control we are of our technological dependency. He has a point; lots of people spend way too much time on their phones, and feel uncomfortable/naked/without them. In Finland, cell phones are referred to as “kanny,” which roughly translates to “extension of the hand,” while in Germany a cell phone is known as “handy”…you get the idea. Thinking of cell phones as extensions of the hand is a concept that’s years old, and as smartphones become even more ubiquitous and convenient, with more information becoming easily accessible at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine life without them.
To say that we’re “slaves” to them is a taking it a bit too far, though, and not just because of the dystopic resonance of machines taking over a la Battlestar Galactica, but because it suggests that we are powerless. To be powerless is to be so drawn in by something that it becomes the antagonist of your life and you have no chance of stopping it, of adjusting your behaviour so that your involvement with this thing is more manageable. Do we need to create more balance between phone time and no-phone time? Yes. But do phones isolate us and make us “unsocial?” I think it’s the opposite.
Turke tells us that we “pretend not to notice the social isolation” when we’re on our phones, but again, he’s defining “social” as something that can only happen in the physical presence of others. Around halfway through the poem, he reiterates that he has no issue with people being alone, and that “if you read a book, paint a picture, do some exercise, you’re being productive and present, not reserved and recluse” (pan to shot of a woman on her computer). This part confounds me. Are we not productive when we read an e-book on our tablets, a newspaper article on our phones, or when we create art using design software? What’s with this romantic notion of productivity and presence being defined by a paper book and physical activity? I’m not saying that we aren’t productive when doing the latter, but it’s silly and biased to assume we can’t be productive when using technology. It’s goes against the very reason we use technology to aid us in our everyday lives. Apparently, without technology you are “awake and attentive and putting your time to good use” – but why this universal statement? We can’t define productivity by the objects being used; we need to define it by intention, creation, and the pursuit of knowledge, however that’s achieved.
I’m taking Turke’s words very literally, but it’s important to recognize that his argument stems from a position that sees technology as the ultimate force distracting us from seeing the “real” world. “Look Up” privileges vision as the primary sensory experience for taking in all that the world has to offer. It claims that by looking at a screen, we can’t enjoy the grass and the trees. But, back when mp3 players hit the mass market, some were against them, but I don’t remember any inspirational videos coming out, telling people to leave their headphones at home and go out on a run without music, taking in the sounds of nature. Why do people listen to music while commuting to work, for example? To enhance that experience by engaging one of their senses in a different way. Listening to a song while staring out a car window or going for a walk may not seem like a mediated experience, but it certainly is. So, why take issue with someone looking at their screen and interrupting the visual experience of nature for a few moments to snap a picture of what they’re looking at? There’s a difference between going to a live concert and watching the entire thing through the lens of one’s smartphone, and taking a short video or a few pictures of the show while its happening, to preserve the visual memory.
Turke is convinced that technology ruins experiences, and that we need to get rid of our devices. The part in the video where we’re told that the man sells his laptop to buy an engagement ring for the woman he met while walking down the street is perhaps the most laughable moment in the entire thing. Basically, the man is exchanging one commodity for another – getting rid of one tool often used to procure a mate (via online dating and communication) and replacing it with a diamond ring, the thing society has told us is the necessary object to procure a mate. Great. Buying an item that’s basically worthless and depreciates in value the moment you walk out of the store with it, in exchange for a laptop, the thing most of us use to earn a living. Take that, technology!
This, along with the images of Turke describing his childhood filled with running and playing outside all speaks to his pessimistic view of technology, which assumes that true “culture” and authentic experiences are synonymous with a traditional, pre-technological world. The attitude that culture is severely degraded by the rise of technology implies that authenticity can only be attained in the “natural” world of tree-houses and playgrounds, and that anything technological is a step away from that purity, that state of humanity where life was simple and children played outside instead of with iPads. But, is that really true? When was life ever so simple? We forget that “technology” is not just a distracting smartphone, nor is it a laptop. Technology is just another word for tools, the very devices that aid us in our everyday lives and extend our physical bodies. I’m not against playing outside, nor am I against increasing physical activity and decreasing screen-time. But the video repeatedly shows children playing video games in isolation, and never once shows group video game sessions, or online multi-player interactions that can be just as rewarding as running around in circles with the other kids, albeit it in a different way.
When Turke says we need to “be there in the moment,” he’s implying that “the moment” is always going to be interrupted by technology, that a smartphone can’t be used to help capture the moment, help one understand the moment in a different context, or allow one to enhance the moment along with their environment and the experience. What is “the moment,” anyway? Apparently “when you’re too busy looking down, you don’t see the chances you miss.” Okay, maybe you won’t see that person walking down the street who will end up being your future wife and the mother of your child, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make connections in other ways. He rightly says: “Just one connection is all it takes,” but who’s to say that that meaningful connection, the one that will change your entire life, can’t happen through an online dating site? Or through a meetup site filled with people who come to one place to meet other like-minded individuals? Not once in this entire video do we see someone making a friend online, or connecting with someone who lives far away.
My biggest issue with this is that Turke sees “all” technology as one type of object that disembodies and distances us from a way of being in which we are embodied, present in our engagements and surroundings, and able to relate to nature. Instead, we turn into observers looking at the world from a distance, no longer in tandem with our bodies and seeing them from a removed perspective, withdrawn from our immediate presence. In essence, what this is saying is that somewhere along the way, humans have lost some way of being that made us human and authentic, and we need to do everything in our power to get it back. But what if we didn’t lose anything? What if it’s still right there, but we sometimes miss it? I don’t think that the advent of smartphones, online chat rooms and social media caused us to suddenly begin to “live like robots,” as Turke comments. There are plenty of things out there to distract us when we walk down the street, and pointing a finger at smartphones misses the bigger picture. We didn’t developed into a culture obsessed with narcissism and self-image through social media outlets; this came from advertising.
This characterization of technology as a disruption of human development implies that the only way to combat our status as “slaves to technology” is by “shutting down” our relationship to technology. Yet, this doesn’t leave room for actually changing anything drastically, if this is how we’ve been told to think of our co-existence with technology. Any actions such as leaving one’s smartphone at home for the day, which will barely make a dent in terms of one’s dependency on their device, or even getting rid of a smartphone altogether are just not practical in this day and age, especially if we’ve become so used to them and what they do for us.
So, what do we do? This video tells us that we need to shut down our devices, but for how long? Surely not forever. Anyone who watched this video probably put their phone down for an afternoon at most, but then picked it up again the moment they heard a “ding.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to stop assuming that it’s possible to have a work/life balance where we shut one out in favour of the other, because it’s just not possible. We live in an increasingly technologically dominated world, and learning how to co-existent with our tools means recognizing our priorities and dividing our time in ways that makes us happy.
If you like to code for fun, like e-books better than paper books, or like socializing via online multiplayer games more than going out to the bar, go ahead and do whatever makes you feel productive and social, to your own discretion. Do “look up” once in a while, but remember that the sky isn’t going anywhere; it’s not more beautiful, more ethereal, or more “real” all of a sudden because you’ve decided to start appreciating it differently. We’re used to starting at screens, but there’s nothing inauthentic about that, and the rest of the world hasn’t become more amazing in the absence of us looking at it. This video tells us (in a nauseating way) that we can’t have happy lives when we have cell phones, but shutting them off doesn’t suddenly guarantee a life without loneliness. Turke ends off by telling us to “stop watching this video, live life the real way” – I would argue that you already are, and that the notion of “real” is ever-changing, and not defined by anyone else except you.
Disclaimer: I have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, and 3 game consoles at home. I also rock climb, cycle, hike, run, and spend time with friends. Technology hasn’t hurt any of these things, it’s helped.