My cell phone is not allowed at the dinner table.
Apparently it's distracting. The same logic excludes my computer from family conversations and prompts the question "Are you Facebooking?" (though I have many times protested that that is not a verb) when I appear glued to my Mac. Usually, the answer is yes. Usually, I say no.
The media and The Old (That's you, Mom) never tire of enumerating the ways in which the internet, cell phones, social networking and television have undermined our relationships, our eating habits, our sleeping patterns, our global outlooks. For once, none of those groups is far from the mark. But they paint modern technology as an evil. They fail to recognize its boons. Let me take a moment to address the accusations against technology. If nothing else, I'd like to defend my phone. Maybe I can earn it a place at the dinner table.
Have texting, messaging, and emailing come to replace interpersonal interaction?
Admittedly, it is not uncommon for me to answer a text in the middle of a conversation. Contrary to popular belief, doing so is not an anti-interpersonal interaction tactic. Doing so in fact facilitates later interpersonal interaction. Rather than expressing boredom or frustration with the conversation at hand, I have only to pull out my phone and pretend that an urgent message awaits. Prevented: A reprimand for my obvious disinterest. Saved: A friendship. More importantly: I look trendy and popular when I'm on my phone.
It does seem that we are no more than the sum of our profile pictures, BBM statuses, and tagged posts. But this is simply a new interpretation of Darwin's survival of the fittest. We no longer have to fight for food. We do still have to weed the undesirables from society. The internet is the perfect vehicle for such (un)natural selection. A 15-year-old's profile picture of himself shotgunning a beer is the modern equivalent of being born without a thumb.
But what to do with a teenager glued to her phone?
Praise the Lord.
Since time immemorial, parents have bemoaned their sullen, uncommunicative teenagers and written off the teenage brain. Now we're communicating! Now you can always reach us! Now we get texts from the New York Times! Hell, we knew about Osama before you did! So far as that 16-year-old surgically attached to her smartphone goes, count your blessings.
Have the temptations of constant communication derailed productivity?
Yes, my phone is sitting on the couch next to me right now. Yes, I check it every sentence to see if I have a message. (Nope.) Yes, I am also waiting for a little red flag to pop up on my Facebook profile, which is currently occupying more space on my monitor than Word. Is that a problem? No. If it weren't for my phone, I'd be pausing every sentence to pour myself a bowl of cereal, and a) that takes more time than checking my messages, and b) isn't very good for my pre-graduation diet. (Two texts just in.)
More importantly, as Amtrak has proved, productivity is a myth. Popularity is real.
Has rapid-fire prose undermined our literary sensibilities?
This concern makes sense. It's a matter of literacy and education, of TV rotting the brain and the video game console conquering the book. But the real fear is simply one of modernity and change. Maybe we don't write Dickensian paragraphs on the Internet. But Hemingway didn't write Dickensian paragraphs either, and he didn't have cable.
Social media have prompted their own literary style. It's a style of abreevs. And abreevs r a science. There is as much subtle meaning to a "u" instead of a "you" as there is to one of Melville's extended metaphors. The ability to craft witty abreevs (take "mup," short for mobile upload) is just as valuable as Austen's mastery of dialogue. The stichomythia of Greek tragedy has reinvented itself. If I had to paraphrase my last Facebook chat, it would go precisely like this:
ISMENE: And what life is dear to me, bereft of thee?
ANTIGONE: Ask Creon; all thy care is for him.
ISMENE: Why vex me thus, when it avails thee nought?
ANTIGONE: Indeed, if I mock, 'tis with pain that I mock thee.
Sophocles, watch out.
Furthermore, modern communication has mass-marketed wit. Humor, wordplay, clever syntax, and rapid repartee are now sought-after commodities as we forge our internet identities. A friend with a major in journalism once informed me that "learning to write lucid prose quickly is the only way to learn to write well." Personally, I believe that learning to write clever prose quickly is the only way to learn to write cleverly.
But is the constant stimulation of the Internet age promoting wide-spread ADD?
Is that a problem?
Attention spans are overrated. They represent nothing but a willingness to be bored, to settle for mediocre diversion. Maybe I can't get through a page of Modern European History reading without checking my email. Maybe I can't watch more than 30 minutes of a play, movie, musical, or television show (are there any television shows left that are longer than 30 minutes?) without turning to my phone. But that's not because I lack concentration, intelligence, or culture. It's because, thanks to the Internet, I demand nothing but the best -- and nothing but the best all the time. Modern technology has simply raised my standards.
Not only that, but thanks to our iPads and cell phones and laptops and rocket machines (I bet you didn't know we had those, too) the Facebook generation -- henceforth Generation F -- can multi-task better than ever before. A woman just gave birth while texting! No longer will we be forced to choose among homework, dinner, 30 Rock, internet gaming, and push-ups. We can have our cake and text it too.