Have you seen the latest work by the street artist known as Banksy? It’s a brilliant piece entitled “Mobile Lovers,” (see above) and it captures many of the themes I’ve clamored about in this column for a few years now.
In Banksy’s latest we see an attractive couple embracing, perhaps coming together after a long day at work. Immediately obvious is that although they’re embracing, they’re worlds apart psychologically—both staring deeply into their smartphones rather than each other’s eyes.
This “alone together” theme is no longer so new. Nearly two-thirds of mobile subscribers in the U.S. use a smartphone and the presence of these gadgets in every domain of life—from the bedroom to the doctor’s office—means there’s no escaping technology without a conscious choice. When there’s a lull in the conversation with your partner, it’s just too easy to check Facebook. And while every media outlet in the world has covered the question of whether “digital distraction” is becoming a social problem, the question remains: Are our devices fundamentally getting in the way of togetherness?
There is a very easy answer to this question: Yes, but also no. Like so much of life, how we interact with technology is about cultivating balance.
Have you ever sat around with a group of people sharing your favorite YouTube videos? It’s hilarious, and it’s incredibly social. We laugh and joke, we look at each other, we riff on what another person said. In this situation, technology is a vehicle for the coming together of real people in real interactions.
In Mobile Lovers, though, we see the darker side, and I would like to suggest that what happens when we move from being truly social with our technology to being digitally-distracted is a loss of relationship fidelity. In much the same way music aficionados warned of the loss of audio fidelity in the movement from vinyl to cassettes to compact discs and so on, the digital divide among friends, couples or family members undermines the basic channels of communication and connection in a relationship.
Make Your Relationship “Lossless”:
Readers of my column will know that there is a mountain of evidence linking high quality relationships with health and wellbeing. When we lose relationship fidelity, what relationship goodies do we lose along with it?Here are a few examples:
- Attention—being looked at, being touched. Go back to the Bansky picture. What kind of embrace is that?! It’s absent any real attention or substance. It’s a low fidelity hug.
- Feeling understood and supported—knowing that someone gets your point of view and can support you when times are tough. Sometimes my wife looks at her phone when I am telling her a story. I hate this with a passion—it’s like I am talking to a wall. I do this too, and I am sure she hates it as well. Sometimes my son yells at me, “I AM TALKING TO YOU, STOP TEXTING!” At that moment, I feel very ashamed and sad. It’s hard work to listen and empathize with another human being, and we’ve somehow slipped into a national pattern of being halfway attentive to each other most of the time. This is pretty ruinous.
- Belonging and security—when we’re attended to, understood, supported, and accepted, we feel we belong. Belongingness is a sense of security, a sense that you are part of something stable and strong. This is what we mean when we say someone is our “rock.” She’s there for me through thick and thin. Being there for someone requires presence, it requires showing up to deliver the goods. When our mind is on work, how can we be there for the kids? When our eyes are on Facebook, how can we be there for our partners?
A Solution in Three Questions:
The pull of technology is very strong. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the fear of missing out (FOMO) is real. We repeatedly, even obsessively, check email and social media throughout the day because these mediums operate on a variable reinforcement schedule, which means that these doses of electronic interaction are distributed unevenly and unpredictably, keeping us constantly coming back for more. We’re hardwired at a very deep level to respond positively to social rewards, and the variable pattern of reinforcement is what keeps us tethered so strongly to our devices. We can get another hit of e-social connection at any moment.In my prior column on this topic I suggested ways to get off technology more regularly. However, to truly use technology well, we need to actively and purposefully integrate technology into our lives without falling into the Mobile Lovers trap.
We need to be conscious of what we’re doing and how we’re interacting. If you pause once each morning and evening to ask yourself three questions, you can bring relationships front-and-center in your life. These are my three questions:
- Am I attending to my friends and family well enough? Am I there for them most of the time?
- Am I over-involved with my iPhone or other gadget of choice? If yes, what specifically can I do to change that?
- Am I in balance with my technology and using it to be social, or am I slavishly devoted to updates and emails and texts and isolating myself in pursuit of them?
We all have to confront the Mobile Lovers problem. Personally, I think the best way forward is to “change from within.” It’s a well-worn phrase, sure, but I want high fidelity relationships for myself and for all of us. The only way to get there is to start making some changes on our side of the digital divide.
I developed some of the ideas in this column together with my colleague, Niki Mathias. You can learn more about Niki here: https://nikimathias.com
READ MORE: 7 Ways to Achieve Social Media Happiness