Together, yet alone, with smart phones

was a good evening to get together and enjoy some conversation, except the conversation wasn’t really happening.

It was a Saturday evening and a table of 10 friends had gathered at a pub, enjoying some drinks and food at the end of the day. It was a good evening to get together and enjoy some conversation, except the conversation wasn’t really happening.

At any time, at least three of the people — not always the same three — were on their smart phones, ignoring the others at the table.

They were together, in the same physical space, but they were also alone, separate from the others around the table.

A young woman was chatting excitedly with her boyfriend, but he was reading something on his screen.

Later, the boyfriend put down his phone and started talking with someone sitting beside him, but that person was engrossed in something he was reading on his smart phone.

And so it continued. Some chatted while others concentrated on their phones.

A few years ago, this scene would have seemed ridiculous. While cellular phones have been a reality for decades, social media and smart phones are more recent developments.

Today, we have access to the World Wide Web at our fingertips.

As long as we’re in areas with cellular coverage or a wireless network, we can access the online world whenever we want.

It’s a mixed blessing.

It’s easier to stay in touch now than ever before.

We can make phone calls, send emails and text messages whenever the need arises.

But this connectivity also means we have multiple sources clamouring for our attention.

It’s hard to keep up and it’s hard to keep focussed on one person or one group of people at a time.

The result is what I saw at the pub, and what I’ve seen on many other occasions as well.

During a conversation or a gathering of friends, one or more will pull out their smart phones to see who just called, to read an email or text message, or to keep up on Facebook.

In the fall, I upgraded from a basic flip phone to a smart phone and while I appreciate the greater level of connectivity, it’s not perfect.

I’m still learning how to respond when I get a text alert while I’m in a face-to-face conversation.

Last year, on several occasions, I was able to spend some vacation time in areas without any cellular coverage or wireless network access.

It was wonderful.

Conversations with loved ones or even with strangers seemed more meaningful without the distractions of incoming calls and messages.

There’s nothing wrong with smart phone technology. In fact there are many benefits.

It can keep us in touch with each other.

The navigation features can assist us in unfamiliar areas.

And having a phone within reach can come in handy.

But there’s also a time to put down the phone.

Last Saturday was Earth Hour, a time when we’re encouraged to turn off the lights and unplug for one hour.

If you participated, how hard was it to go without your smart phone?

Tomorrow is Good Friday and Sunday is Easter, an important weekend around the world, and a time when many people, no matter what their faith or worldview, will get together with friends and family.

These times can be opportunities to disconnect, in order to reconnect with our loved ones, ourselves and nature.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.