Tuesday 11 December 2018

Sorry, I am on the phone. Most of the time

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Stock Image

John Masterson

'I forced myself to read a book last weekend," I overheard a young woman say to her friends as I drank coffee. Her companion was shocked. She openly admitted that she hadn't the attention span for a serious book any more. It turned out that the book the first woman had read was a John Grisham so there was the thriller aspect to keep her going. Her friend was fairly confident that she wouldn't even manage that. I felt that pleasant glow of superiority that I am now aware was probably misplaced.

Their joint problem, if it is indeed a problem, was that they were both spending far too much time on their smartphones. They were wondering if they were addicted to social media. I wasn't wondering. One was fighting it. The other said she still loved the last half hour of scrolling before going to sleep.

This eavesdropping prompted me to ask a few people about their smartphone habits.

Several admitted to me that they were reading fewer books. I was surprised to hear that they were also watching less television. One said that she remembered much less of the last box set she binged on because she was looking at her phone at the same time. We discussed a serious crime that we had all seen on the news that week and I asked what sentence was handed down. No one could remember. They are on their phones at the same time as they watch the news. One person told me that television had become just background noise these days.

I can see why Twitter and Facebook and all the rest turn people into addicts. They have the important quality of requiring small amounts of behaviour and giving quick feedback. The days of writing a letter and watching for the postman arrive with the reply are long gone. At least the letter writer was someone we knew and valued.

If you put up a photo of your back garden, or cat, or whatever on Facebook and find yourself checking to see if you got 'Likes' or 'Shares' or even 'Comments' you are in the early stages of a problem. It doesn't matter a damn whether or not you know the people who press the little heart on their screen. You feel validated and you feel good. The other side is that if you don't get many likes you feel bad. So what do you do? You put up another post and watch to see if it does better. Hey presto. People like that photo better. You are like the heroin addict forever chasing a repeat of the first fix.

I do a bit of social media, but don't pay much attention to it. It used to be fun but these days it is hard to find the fun in between the relentless self-promotion. I have, however, developed a bit of a habit of browsing news sites. I can happily fill 15 minutes any time checking out websites from around the world as if it mattered to me what is going on in Timbuktu. You get an illusory sense of being well informed where you are really furthering a skin-deep knowledge interspersed by detours to see an alligator fight an anaconda somewhere.

I just googled Timbuktu and discovered it is in Mali. I did not need to know that and have no idea when I will slip it into conversation to appear intelligent.

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