As I take a seat on the blue route bus on my way to class, I pull out my phone on instinct and start scrolling through my emails. After a few minutes I glance up and am surprised to see that almost everyone around me, with the exception of two or three people, are doing the same thing—their faces down turned, eyes glued to the tiny glowing screens of their phones, thumbs working like mad as they text away. It is at that moment when I realize that I had been sitting directly across from a good friend of mine all along.
I say her name to catch her attention, and we set our phones aside to start a conversation about how long it’s been since we last saw each other—though for all we know, we had missed each other a hundred times when we were distracted by a Facebook notification.
Unfortunately, our time together was cut short by the fact that we were arriving at her destination and she departed, leaving me to wonder if we could have had a longer chance to exchange pleasantries if only we had taken a second to glance up from our digital lives and notice.
I would go so far as to say that all of us have been guilty of this at some point. You’re walking from one place to another and you opt to check your Facebook app instead of observing the world around you, or you’re sitting in class and suddenly that Twitter notification is more important than what your professor is telling you. But it’s not entirely our fault.
Never before has man invented something so personal to every individual who owns it. Our smartphones and tablets keep track of our passions and interests, our relationships and, on the rare occasion, even our course assignments. These devices are an extension of our brains, and sometimes I think that their storage capacity for data is getting bigger than ours.
Could that be the reason why it’s becoming more difficult to tear our eyes away from them? Maybe we’re using them as a crutch. Is it really the most awkward thing in the world to make eye contact with strangers on the trolley? Or perhaps our social lives are so attached to our phones that it makes more sense to keep up with what’s going on in our text conversations than to start up a new one in person.
Whatever the reason for it, I find myself worrying that we’re becoming like those people in Pixar’s WALL-E, and that in a couple of decades we’ll have screens in front of our faces 24-7. Of course, it’s a slippery slope from that to gaining 300 pounds and spending our whole lives in floating chairs. Tech’s robotics program is impressive, but I think it might be a while before we invent something with the artificial intelligence to save us from such a terrible fate.
Every time we pass our friends and classmates without realizing it because we’re too busy pinning something on Pinterest or reblogging on Tumblr, we lose a chance to really connect with people. You don’t have to leave your room to update a status, and it’s a lonely life relying on your phone for company when you’re surrounded by others.
Maybe we should be more like those rare, wonderful people who ask to sit down next to us in dining halls and the Student Center cafeteria even though we’ve never met before and start up a conversation just like that. Friendships are made that way—through spontaneous meetings when we least expect them. And those relationships are a lot more fulfilling than discovering that twenty million other people like How I Met Your Motheras much as you do.
Naturally, there’s really nothing wrong with keeping up with our friends and family on our phones. The beauty of this technology is that we can contact them anywhere, anytime, which if anything has helped us maintain our most important connections. But when phones and tablets become a substitute for the interaction we could be having with the people around us, even if it’s just acknowledging their presence, then maybe we should stop and wonder if our phones are becoming blinders in our daily lives.
So the next time you’re catching the bus somewhere, take a few moments to just sit back and look around. You never know who you might see. And make sure you’re paying attention to your surroundings when you’re walking around between classes. You’ll avoid accidents like wandering into fountains and colliding with other people, which is always a bonus.