Everywhere and nowhere

So here’s the scene: The movie theatre is dark. My sister and I are ten minutes into the latest installment of a much beloved literary wizard’s adventures. We are stretching out our legs in good seats which feel well-earned after an hour or so in line. Both of us are sucking on tasty caramel candies that we’ve taken care to discretely, ever so gently, unwrap n’er a crinkity-crinkle. You might say we’re as content a pair of Weasely twins in a joke shop, sans the disruptive mischief.

But then, from a seat across the aisle to our left…


A bright square of light.

We look over and see the shadow of a girl’s fingers tip tap tapping a text.


This girl pulls out her phone at least four more times during the movie, causing Julie and I to desperately wish that we could Avada Kedavra! her cursed Blackberry into oblivion.

I suppose it would be excessive to say this girl totally ruined the movie for us. But she did add an unnecessary current of stress to the experience (and good heavens, as fellow Harry Potter viewers know, it’s already one heck of a tense cinematic trip!).

I’m tempted to collapse into a “Humph, how rude” rant of a blog where I simply whip out synonyms for “rude” (How inconsiderate! How ill-mannered! How thoughtless!). And the girl does deserve all these exclamations. However, the situation, made me think about more than just way this girl’s behaviour violated social etiquette. What it (more interestingly, I think?) also me led to to ponder was what her impulse says about a society in which so many of us pay more attention to our digital worlds than our actual surroundings.

And I’m not exempt from this many of us, either.I may not text at the movies, but I know I’m on my iPhone more than necessary. Sure, I have checks on my usage. I avoid pulling it out during dinner conversations and other such social situations. And I’m so paranoid about it accidentally sounding off in church and similar settings that I power it right down. But I openly admit that I’m one of these people who tippity taps on her phone to send a message, check a social network, etc. when there’s no urgent reason to do so right then and right there.

Many people’s cell phone usage, include mine, can rightly be described as “absent-minded.” It’s a phrase so common that perhaps it doesn’t seem alarming. And yet, consider its meaning: “so lost in thought as to be unaware of one’s surroundings.” The disturbing aspect of applying this term to cell phone usage is that you can’t even necessarily call people checking their phones in movie theaters and other such places lost in “thought.” No, more often they’re lost in activities that are, well, pretty mindless. Yet they remain oblivious to their surroundings all the same.

An insightful passage in Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, a book which challenges preconceptions of introversion and celebrates the ways introverts can bless the church, speaks about this “disorienting nature of technology” and recalls a similar experience of movie disruption:

There were three people in the rows in front of us who had their cell phones open during the entire movie. They were text messaging and surfing the Internet and otherwise annoying people. As I saw those cell phone screens open during the movie, I observed that the people using them were not fully committed to being anywhere during those two hours. They were physically sitting in the theatre, even sitting with others who accompanied them, but their minds and hearts were all over the place. They were not fully present, in terms of their attention, to the visual and auditory experience in front of them, they were not fully present to their friends and family that they were sitting next to, and they were not geographically present to the people they were text messaging. They had a hand and foot in several different places that were disconnected, leaving them as some sort of radical amputees. They were everywhere and they were nowhere.

Aside from how piercingly bright a cell phone screen can be in a dark movie theater and how bizarre it is to text message during an intense and complex spy movie, I got to thinking about how handheld technology affects our sense of personal identity. So many people walk through their lives as ghosts, not fully present to anything, gliding through places and around people but not really seeing or experiencing or being seen or experienced.

While I may not be exactly like these movie disruptors or Harry Potter texter girl, these are words of warning that I need to heed, too. They remind me that there is more at stake than social etiquette when we go to our cell phones too often and in public settings. The very action can indicate a disconnection from reality—a refusal to be truly there in a moment. And how frightening is it to think about such aimlessness taking over our interactions? How scary is it to imagine us morphing into a culture of “gliders” who may not even realize that a longing for depth is the source of our restlessness—who may not even admit that we are restless?

To me, this is an image almost as sinister as that of Dementors floating around, soulless and empty and separated from the lively warmth of real-life connections to the world. It certainly makes this iPhone user shudder. But I hope it will help motivate me to be truly and authentically present to my environment — even and especially when technology is fighting for my attention.

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