I guess it was almost two years ago when I first came across Eric Pickersgill’s series of photographs, Removed. I remember it clearly: I was sitting in a big lecture hall at the Sorbonne, waiting for my terrifying Parisian Film professor to begin his 3-hour lecture.
Once we started discussing the work of Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, and others, the photographs disappeared from my mind. That is, until one day last semester while working on a project in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Emory Hospital Midtown.
Surrounded by incubators and the tiniest of newborn babies, one of the doctors with whom I was working explained how he consistently has to encourage parents and family to actually interact with their babies?
I didn’t quite understand, and indicated that he should go on in further detail. The reason, Dr. Sexson said, is because people have become so attached (if not addicted) to their phones that they forget where they are and why.
Studies have found that speaking and singing to, cuddling, and just loving premature infants do so much in the formative weeks and months that these little fighters spend at Emory Midtown and NICUs across the world. But these actions continue to have an impact on the babies once they make it home⎯ as they grow into toddlers and young adults and eventually have their own children.
Despite the doctor’s pleadings, Sexson notices increasing numbers of new mothers who are more interested in their phones than with their babies.
As soon as I heard this, I was completely deflated. Honestly, just seeing the little newborns was moving and heart-wrenching in itself. But this took my emotions to a new level. I couldn’t help but look at technology in a new light.
I mean what on Earth⎯ or in the palms of our hands⎯ could be more important than these bundles of joy, who need and deserve nothing but love and attention?
That’s when I thought of Removed, and did a little more research on the series of photos I hadn’t thought about for a year. Almost every major newspaper, magazine and website⎯ our friends at Wired, but also The Atlantic, Fast Company, and so many more⎯ had covered Pickersgill’s work. He even has his own TED talk, “Do Our Devices Divide Us?”
“We are hopelessly hooked,” Jacob Weisberg of The Slate Group wrote in one review.
“You’re so accustomed to everyone holding a phone, you might not even notice they’re missing,” said another reviewer.
The more I think about it, the truer it all sounds.
I call to mind Kathleen’s final project. When she went off the grid for just a day or two, her life went up in flames. Her parents freaked, she missed class, and just felt totally out of it.
If this chain of events is what takes place every time we step away from our devices and unplug, no one will choose do it. And rightfully so. I do not want to worry my mother into sending me cryptic Pig Latin messages more than anyone else.
What I’m trying to get at here is this: our connections today are limitless. We are perpetually contact-able and “always-on.”
Technology affords us (I see you Janet Murray!) proof that, no matter where we find ourselves and what time of day it is, we can reach anyone in a fraction of a second. And not just through telephone calls, but also with videos, pictures, Snaps, Facebook Live, you name it.
So if I told you that in spite of all these awesome technologies and new ways of staying in touch, Americans are becoming lonelier and lonelier, you might not believe me.
And with good reason. Compared to every era before this, getting in touch with someone has never been easier or more effortless. The hardest part might actually be choosing which app, platform or website you want to use.
Stephen Marche of The Atlantic says it well, “In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actually society.”
Sociologists out of Duke have done multiple studies looking at “nationally representative data on the confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters.” What they’ve found is that 24.6% of all Americans report having no confidants.
That’s one in four Americans.
Another 19.6% say they have one confidant.
Stop and take that in. If that sounds terrifying, it’s because it is. A little less than half of America has at most 1 person with whom they can really talk and let it out.
Why is this so? ask the researchers. They didn’t explicitly set out to find the answer, but made a few guesses. Longer work days and commutes are among those listed. But I’m most intrigued by the third hypothesis: novel ways of communicating thanks to technology.
New technology, people like Jay Rosen understand, places the ball in our courts. These days, those who were formerly the audience are in charge of “publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.”
And guess what, very few of us choose to click share when we’re at the library studying or having a bad day😔.
Liz Hoggard of The Telegraph just the other day wrote, “On paper my life sounds glamorous. My Facebook and Twitter updates show evenings spent at film premieres and West End first nights.”
That’s just it. Online communication and everything we do through our devices is so alluring because it’s artificial.
Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT wrote in a 2012 New York Times opinion piece, “Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.”
We have a huge problem though, and John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago, the leading expert on loneliness, is the first to admit it.
In an age when everyone is so concerned with appearances and generating the perfect self-image, no one wants to admit they are lonely or have humdrum days, weeks or months.
Especially when all of their so-called friends appear to be having the times of their lives, according to Insta and Snapchat.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think technology is great. I’d go so far as to say it’s magical.
When I graduate in just over a week, it’s social media that will allow me to stay in touch with friends and professors. Technology will facilitate the upkeep of all the bonds I’ve formed during my time at Emory.
I just think that like everything in life, we need to use it with moderation.
I’m with Turkle, who urges us all to “reclaim conversation.” Face-to-face conversation, that is. It’s why I created the series of images at the top of this page.
Throughout the past few weeks, whenever I’ve come across a friend or other young people so absorbed in their phones, I’ve asked to take a photo of them staring blankly at their hands as if the device were still there.
Everyone I’ve asked initially seems quite confused by my request.
When I’m with these friends for a longer period of time, I’ve noticed that they become uber aware of using (or not using) their devices. My friend Leila went so far as to put her phone away for the rest of our brunch. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose.
I hope that my classmates who listened to my presentation and those in the photographs are able to take something from this. I hope that Dr. Sexson can eventually convince mothers in the NICU to stare at their beautiful babies more than their phones.