Everyone’s been there: You’re having a face-to-face conversation when your interlocutor reaches for her smartphone. Just as often you’re the culprit — pawing your iPhone at a family dinner, stealing glances at Facebook during a business meeting.
It took 50 years for computers to move from office basements to handbags, and scarcely five more for them to enter our pockets. Now we take them everywhere.
Laptops, tablets, smartphones: They are always on hand, and thanks to their portability, always at the ready. Even worse, they’re always connected, and the boundless potential of a hypothetical interaction is always better than the specific reality of one actually taking place.
But should we give in to the temptation of betraying face-to-face interactions in favor of computer-mediated ones? Isn’t it rude to turn our attention away from people right in front of us?
You already know the answer. Of course it’s rude to disrupt one conversation just in case another one might be more interesting. Obvious exceptions exist — family emergencies, urgent requests from a superior — but they rarely occur anyway.
To ask if task-switching to your smartphone is rude is to ask the wrong question.
Instead, we should wonder why we seem so willing to adopt this particular kind of discourtesy. Some might answer that we haven’t done so willingly, that we’re compelled, even addicted to our gadgets and the services they deliver. There might be some truth to that claim. In fact, in the article “The Machine Zone” in a recent issue of The Atlantic (http://bit.ly/1avie3w), Alexis Madrigal compared Facebook’s product design to that of casino slot machines.
But compulsion isn’t the whole story. The truth is, we secretly want to be rude. Rudeness is a sign of success, of power. Think of a figure who would willingly turn away from a conversation to take a call, who would show up late without apology, who would maintain total contingency in his affairs just in case something more important comes along.
It’s none other than the corporate executive, who also happens to be the early adopter of the mobile phone and the Blackberry that prefigure today’s connected devices. The executive always holds time in reserve, because he sees his time (or hers, but mostly his) as more precious than yours. “I’m sorry, I have to take this,” is less a statement of deference than it is one of authority: “I am important enough to snub you.”
For better or worse, the businessman is the hero of contemporary culture. It’s no surprise that his manner would win out over Miss Manners in the public imagination. We rarely admit it, but we all want to be important — yet most of us aren’t. Smartphones let us simulate that importance, replacing boardroom urgency with household triviality.
And even though they seem like populist devices, smartphones can never fully shed their origins as rapacious instruments of executive grandstanding. There will always be something rude about smartphone use, because smartphones allow us all to play the role of a cultural paragon we didn’t choose, one we may even despise, but one whose influence we can’t disavow.
Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and a professor of interactive computing at Georgia Tech.