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17 July 2014

Ignore me – I’m not here


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From Checking out column issue 68 – Summer 2014

Everybody, it seems, wants to be somewhere else. On the train, in the street, in the shops, at a concert, in the park, in a restaurant, at the football ground – wherever people find themselves, they’re either talking on the phone or checking their texts and emails on their smartphone – and often wearing headphones, too. No one wants to be "in the moment", assuming they even know what the current moment is, because they’re too busy being in some other moment.

But what is that other moment? If they’re not here, where are they? Well, if they’re talking on the phone, they’re presumably conjuring up the moment – visualising the person they’re talking to from their assembled memories, while at the same time gathering new input to make up a kind of hybrid reality. Ditto if they’re reading or sending a message.

If they’re looking at images or watching video, then they don’t even have the chore of recall or invention – the other moment is delivered to them ready-made.

But what’s wrong with this moment? How can people absorb the present if they’re constantly busy recalling or reviewing some other past or present? If you take this a bit further, you have to assume that during the other moment that they’re summoning up, they were also not really "in the moment", but in some further, more distant moment – which it its turn was partly absorbed by an even more remote experience.

Thus the present and past are becoming indelibly fused together, infinitely reflected and diminishing as if in opposing mirrors. There is no authentic "now" moment, because every "now" is partly "then", and there is no authentic "here" either, because it’s also partly "there".

This matters greatly, because it implies that for perhaps the majority of us, our current circumstances and actions are simply not considered adequate any more.

It’s nothing new, of course; people have been making phone calls and reading books or newspapers for more than a hundred years, and watching films or TV for most of that time: stepping in and out of their present reality, for brief periods at least.

But in the past, this kind of activity was limited and relatively constrained; now it has invaded every part of our lives. From the moment we get up to the moment we fall asleep, we can be somewhere else – and it seems a lot of us want to be.

To be fair, we’ve always had our thoughts and memories as companions. We don’t necessarily review the scenery as we walk down the street – we let our mind wander through our interior world. Smartphones are simply replacing that activity with brand new interactions. Arguably it’s more stimulating; certainly it’s more addictive.

But it can also be insulting to others present, and a denial of authentic new experience. Each individual’s world is defined increasingly by what he or she wants to have in it, not by what is actually there (or who is there). It’s nothing less than a mass retreat from reality.

To bring this back to the world of home shopping, it’s no wonder shoppers in high street stores see nothing wrong these days in using their smartphones to check the prices of the goods they see in front of them on rival retailers’ web sites. Shop staff, like friends or acquaintances, are increasingly seen as mere bystanders in an internalised drama: not live human beings who deserve acknowledgement and respect.

You can’t blame people for wanting the best prices; retailers have now learned (sometimes the hard way) that the world has changed forever when it comes to seeking them out. But that’s no justification for rudeness, any more than it’s a validation of the impulse to take unfair advantage of other people’s efforts to engage, entertain, supply and deliver.

Technology is in danger of banishing basic human courtesies, and we owe it to ourselves and each other, not to mention those who try to serve us, not to let this happen.

 

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