Our Evolving Smartphone Culture

April 15th, 2011

For some time, I have blogged about our evolving smartphone culture, and how the use of iPhones and Androids in public, even when in the company of others will become more socially acceptable as time goes by. Today there was a piece in the Times that essential echoed what I have been saying for some time. Smart phones have made it “fashionable to be rude.”

YOU are at a party and the person in front of you is not really listening to you. Yes, she is murmuring occasional assent to your remarks, or nodding at appropriate junctures, but for the most part she is looking beyond you, scanning in search of something or someone more compelling.

Here’s the funny part: If she is looking over your shoulder at a room full of potentially more interesting people, she is ill-mannered. If, however, she is not looking over your shoulder, but into a smartphone in her hand, she is not only well within modern social norms, but is also a wired, well-put-together person.

Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.

My take, circa October 2009:

To those outside the urban jungle, this may seem like absolutely bizarre behavior. The first time I told people in Johnstown, PA about this behavior, they were stunned when I described these social norms. (Of course, I leave my blackberry in my pocket while eating with my Judge.)

But, I argue that the culture is changing.

As more and more people engage in this compulsive crackberry checking, norms change. It becomes less grotesque, and more socially acceptable.

I’m sure at some point it was uncouth to answer a cellular phone at dinner. Now, it is only marginally improper. I think blackberrying should be more proper, mainly because it creates no distracting noise (other than the clicking of the keys), and is usually finished much quicker than placing a phone call (i can read and reply to a message in a few seconds).

For the present, I am still a social anomaly. But I am confident that over the years, my behavior will become more acceptable.

Pioneers always take the arrows

A social anomaly no longer. Yes, my anomalous behavior, in part, in the aggregate has helped to make this culture more socially acceptable (in Wickard v. Filburn logic). As the Times said, it is fashionable to be rude.

The Times’ description of a new age gathering is quite similar to mine.


“Instead of continuing with the conversation, we all take out our phones and check them in earnest,” he said. “For a few minutes everybody is typing away. A silence falls over the group and we all engage in a mass thumb-wrestling competition between man and little machine. Then the moment passes, the BlackBerrys and iPhones are reholstered, and we return to being humans again after a brief trance.”


If you have ever had dinner with D.C. Lawyers, you will no doubt be familiar with the following site: Everyone at the table has their blackberry on the table. At any given time, one or more attendee will be pecking away an e-mail, sending a BBM, updating their twitter with a funny joke they just heard at the table, or researching the answer to a trivia question someone asked.

One passage stuck out, in particular:

In a phone conversation a few weeks afterward, Mr. Powers said that he is far from being a Luddite, but that he doesn’t “buy into the idea that digital natives can do both screen and eye contact.”

“They are not fully present because we are not built that way,” he said.

We are not “built” that way? Is he referring to the way our brains are structured. As I have blogged before, the brains of millennials are wired differently, through building certain types of synapses, to enable us to receive this inundation of information, and multitask like a pro. If anything, we are changing. As I previously noted, my ability to multitask and follow several conversations is pretty decent.

Some people are repulsed when I have a conversation with them, while typing on my blackberry, assuming I am not paying attention. I apologize for any offense I may cause, but years of blackberrying have trained me to multitask like a pro. I’ve tested this with my co-clerk, and I can usually follow 80% of a conversation while I’m typing on my blackberry. I submit that this is not much lower than what I would normally follow if I gave someone my undivided attention. From a utility perspective, I would rather be able to have 2 conversations at 80%, than one conversation at 90 or 95%.

I don’t like to brag too much, but readers of this blog will see stuff on these pages way ahead of the curve. I’m on it.