Pavlov's Dog Has a Smartphone
As a species, sometimes, we can be stupid. And, I don’t mean this as ‘not smart,’ but rather we can be unaware and tend to follow trends out of mere reaction. How many times have you been sitting with someone, they pull out their phone, and for some instinctive reason you check yours as well?
This undeniably takes place. It happened to me, today. But why? Are we so in need of immediately gratification and reassurance from our social cloud that we ignore the person sitting before us?
This, to me, seems to be the most bloated bulb of the umbilical cord that ties us to social media. All to often we forego the person sitting right in front of us to check our email or texts or even Facebook updates. Are these things really more important than being with someone in person?
Our sprint into the technological age has produced profound advancements in many areas, from medicine and health care to business and agriculture. For better or for worse, given one’s stance on the subject, we have created a more connected society.
I can communicate more easily with my friend that lives in South Korea, or even with my brother who lives in Washington D.C., and he can share pictures of his five month old daughter via the Interwebs.
I am incredibly grateful for this, yet I believe there is a necessity for us to set boundaries as to where and when we glue ourselves to our phones. Whatever is out there on the social network will still be there when we’re at home or by ourselves. Just because someone else pulls out their phone in front of us to see their friends’ thoughts about the royal wedding or who the Steelers drafted, it doesn’t mean we have to answer Pavlov’s bell.
For those unfamiliar with Ivan Pavlov, he was a prominent Russian physiologist who won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in the early twentieth century. He also developed the classical conditioning model—largely by accident—where he noticed that food made a dog automatically begin to salivate (makes sense, happens to me all the time).
The interesting part, however, is whenever he would ring a bell and then give the dog food, over time the dog began to associate the bell with food, as thus it would begin to salivate in response the sound of the bell alone.
And so, it is with our tether to being plugged in. We are sitting with a friend or lover at a café or bar or ball game, and he or she pulls out their phone to check god-knows-what, and we’re reaching for ours, too. We are sitting there, together, and yet we’re not.
This form of constantly “checking-in” is not too far removed from stopping your friend in mid-sentence to talk about someone or something completely unrelated, and then returning to the pre-interruption topic. It’s not only rude, it isolates us.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I see this as both a social issue as well as an existential one. As human beings, we are tasked with holding opposing truths from time to time, which can cause us anxiety. At any particular moment, we can be aware of our basic desire to connect with other people while simultaneously being aware of our aloneness.
Contextual existential professor and author Dr. Ned Farley (2008) put it this way:
the paradox of isolation and connection speaks to the tension and resultant anxiety that arises from our deep awareness of our uniqueness (thus the understanding we are truly alone in the world) and our innate desire to be connected in relationship to others. When we come to this realization, conscious or not, that there is no “other” in our world who can truly understand what it means to be “me,” to truly grasp our experience of being in the world, we look to connection, to relationship with an “other” to ease this anxiety
As a society—and here I refer to American society—we are becoming an anxious lot. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) noted that 18% of the population (40 million people) lives with some form of anxiety disorder, which include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (including hoarding), as well as others.
True, even when texting or using Foursquare we are connecting with other people. I do not wish to imply otherwise. But, has it become that doing so is more important than talking with our lunch date?
This rising reliance on our smartphones seems to be outweighing those relationships we establish with flesh-and-blood people, and I will offer that because of this we are experiencing more anxiety related to our natural need to be connected with others, in person.
Perhaps I am old fashioned and a product of my generation, but I believe there is something deeply felt when being with another person that cannot be touched through Twitter. We are a social animal, and as such this includes experiencing direct interpersonal contact. If we are to blindly follow the mass media message, could we not end up like the lemmings over the edge of the cliff, our anxiety driving us to accept a buffer?
As I think about all this, I am reminded of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and in particular a conversation between Samuel and Lee. They pick apart the Hebrew word ‘timshel,’ which when translated means ‘thou mayest.’ The essence of the word speaks to choice, and with this the path is open.
We do not have to unconditionally reach for our phones when we see another do so. We have a choice, and I like to believe recognizing there is another option can begin to lead us back towards being more genuine and present with those with whom we sit.