The girl in front of me took a bar of Lindt chocolate out of her bag and read the ingredients, and I thought it was a phone.
Partly this was an amusing reminder of how used to massive phones we are these days. I’ve just got a new one myself, modest by flagship standards, but I still find it incredibly annoying to use one-handed, which I’m forced to do given that I’m recovering from shoulder surgery.
But what this really made me think about was how technology has changed our behaviours. The zombie stance of neck-down, eyes fixated on oblong-in-hand, thumb hovering poised to scroll, has become so normalised we don’t even realise we’re doing it half the time.
It was her reading the ingredients that threw me off. It took me a good few seconds to process what she was doing, and even after that I was left with questions: Why is she reading a list of ingredients while walking? Is she checking the percentage of cocoa solids? Worried about sweeteners? Checking for dairy? Dozens of potential narratives spun away in my head.
If she had been looking at her phone I wouldn’t have even batted an eyelid. And yet on a phone she could be doing so much stranger things. She could be looking at a hardcore erotica, or even worse, alt-right news sites. She could be cyberbullying or sexting, or any other one of those techphobic buzzwords that baby boomers love to throw around, and I would have no way of knowing.
At work, I teach mostly adults, so it seems ridiculous to ban phones in my classes. But it’s incredibly frustrating when they use them, because I don’t know if they’re looking up a word, scrolling through social media, or a mixture of both. In fact, I think the latter is almost always the case, and I can’t really blame them for that. It’s a flashing light box design to rob our attention at any given moment. I meditate daily, use a phone-detox app called HabitLab, avoid Instagram and Facebook, but even I regularly find myself scrolling Twitter for 40 minutes in bed in the morning.
Wresting our attention back from technology is an uphill battle, and most of us don’t even consider it a war.
Sometimes I wonder how the tech CEOs live. Does Jeff Bezos have notifications on his phone? Do the hotshots who run YouTube actually watch videos on it? Do the Netflix execs binge the latest season of Orange Is The New Black?
Of course, technology isn’t the root of the problem. It’s just the latest variation of late capitalism’s grip on our brains, our bodies, our day-to-day existences. And streams of Luddite pessimism won’t do anything for my wellbeing or your interest.
If there’s one takeaway from this experience, I guess it would be that there’s a lot to wonder at in the world. When I was a kid, I read the back of the cereal box as I ate. If I was growing up now, I probably Snapchat while munching on my cornflakes.
It may be contradictory to argue that reading ingredients lists is somehow more engaging than looking at your phone, given that both are artefacts of our modern economy, but I believe in the power of Interest and deep thoughts, to change ourselves and the world around us. Anything apart from scrolling, scrolling endlessly, is closer to that ideal.