C’mon, people, let’s stop phubbing each other

Mobile Lovers by Banksy
Banksy, Mobile Lovers, 2014. Graffiti on wood on stone wall, Clement Street, Bristol, England. Photo: Paul Green. See also Dan Cretu’s The Kiss (after Brancusi).

Ever been phubbed? It’s annoying, and it can hurt.

To phub someone is to snub them in favor of your smartphone. I’ve never owned a smartphone, so I can’t say I’ve been a perp of this particular act, but I have been a victim on many occasions. Thankfully, my husband is rarely guilty; he has above-average self-control when it comes to phone use. I love that he loves me enough to be present to me when we’ve intentionally set aside time to be together. When we disconnect from our devices, we connect more meaningfully with each other.

I’ve made dates before with friends or family, only to be subjected to regular disruptions as nonurgent text threads or Facebook pop-ups are attended to or, even worse, they feel the need to Internet-surf or scroll through social media feeds. This interferes with the sense of connection I feel with that person and immediately dampens the quality of our conversation. It’s no surprise that multiple studies have shown that phubbing can be detrimental to relationships. It’s something I think we all know and yet we’re unwilling to break our excessive attachment to our phones.

I’m not a technophobe. I really appreciate technology, and smartphones are useful tools. But when they start controlling you rather than the other way around, something must be done. For a book-length treatment of this topic from a Christian perspective, see 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke; I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

But sometimes art can give us a bigger kick in the pants than discursive prose, circumventing our defenses to show, not tell, what is (exposing our faults) and what could be (directing us toward a better alternative). And thus I present two excellent artworks, a dance and a poem, each one exploring what an undisciplined use of one’s cell phone looks like.

Keone and Mari Madrid are creative visionaries specializing in hip-hop dance and choreography. They are also a Christian married couple. Last summer they competed on NBC’s World of Dance with, among other numbers, “Like Real People Do.”

The first half of the dance expresses how routine it has become to reject face-to-face interaction in favor of screen time. Each partner glances sideways to assess the other’s desire, but at different times, so their gazes don’t meet, and they return to their devices. Though they move in step with each other, they lack any kind of interpersonal connection. It’s not until they lower their phones simultaneously that their eyes lock and intimacy becomes possible. They can play and converse and kiss and grow together “like real people do.”

For an uncut version of the dance filmed outdoors, click here. Also check out their audition, which is one of the most adorable, most joyous performances I’ve ever seen! (Dare you not to smile.) And there’s plenty more where that came from on their YouTube channel, covering a wide emotional range. You might also be interested in their recently released Ruth, an enhanced ebook that combines story, illustration, music, and dance—available on iTunes and Google Play.

Next I want to highlight the poem “The Phone Is Too Much with Us” by Benjamin Chase, originally published April 10, 2017, in Second Nature, an online journal of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. It’s a very clever adaptation of the early nineteenth-century sonnet “The World Is Too Much with Us,” in which the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth criticizes the rampant materialism of his contemporaries that led them to break their communion with nature and the spiritual. “We have given our hearts away,” “we are out of tune,” Wordsworth laments.

In his riff on Wordsworth, Chase retains the form of the original and much of its end rhyme while transposing the speaker’s frustrations with thing-obsessed humanity into the present era, where phones are what tend to draw us away from breadth and depth of life. God grants us the power and the blessing to “live in moments that are ours,” but “we’ve given here away”; we’d rather be there, in a virtual world, disseminating our every moment to faceless followers.

Lines 5 and 6 make use of wordplay: The photo “eclipses” the actual moon—it obscures it, reduces its grandeur. Video “lapses” the blooming flower—captures the phenomenon at a low frame rate, making for a nifty playback, but at the same time mediates it through a screen and thus lets slip away, cease, go out of existence the actual eye-to-petal (not eye-to-pixel) miracle. The speaker of this poem would rather be a firsthand witness to life’s beauty than a secondhand, to “see that which is the very thing I see.”

That goes with human encounters just as much as with nature encounters. Being present and open to whatever unfolds, not trying to manipulate it for optimal social media presentation, is a better posture to have. And experiencing emotions truly and bodily is essential if we are to be “a man [or woman] alive”—to “feel joy as joy” rather than merely through emojis or GIFs, and to genuinely sorrow over the devastating headlines we impulsively retweet or share.

None of this is to say that photos, videos, text messages, and social media are bad. They can be helpful in connecting us to people who cannot be physically present for special moments in our lives, and in documenting events we’d especially like to remember. It’s only when these activities hamper our ability to appreciate the people and events in front of us, and especially when they bear no relevance to our immediate context, that they become harmful. It’s worth asking yourself: Is my phone too much with me?

“The Phone Is Too Much with Us” by Benjamin Chase

After William Wordsworth

The phone is too much with us, now and soon.
Searching and scrolling, we bypass our powers.
Little we live in moments that are ours—
we’ve given here away, forgotten boon.
The photo eclipses the actual moon.
Video lapses the blooming flower.
It all uploads like a captured hour—
what we have missed will be our ruin.
Well, as for me, I’d rather be
a man alive, in body outworn.
So might I, standing in truly me,
feel joy as joy, sorrowing forlorn.
See that which is the very thing I see,
until it ends or ending comes to me.

For other similar poems by Benjamin Chase, see “Media Song of Myself” (after Walt Whitman) and “Every Screen.”

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