Left to Our Own Devices

It’s so lonely being the only person I know who uses his smartphone, fitness tracker, ebook reader, tablet, laptop, and desktop computer in perfect moderation.

How do I know I’m maintaining Goldilocks-levels of just-right tech usage?

That’s easy. Everyone who spends more time peering into a screen than me is overdoing and everyone who spends less time than me isn’t trying hard enough to be part of the modern world.

Isn’t this the default metric we all use to compare ourselves to others?


But while I’m waiting impatiently for the rest of the world to calibrate to my ideal technology habits, I’ve started to watch myself watch other people peer into their devices as they walk down the street, sit in coffee shops, and stand at urinals.

This impulse has grown into a challenging but fascinating attention exercise that has lead to insights that are shifting my reactions to other people’s tech habits.  

Other people’s screens reveal my own mind

We hear so much talk about the growing amount of screen time as if screens themselves were the problem. But the screens on our devices are just windows. We’re not seduced by blank screens. We’re captivated by specific content.

We used to be able to know what someone was reading by sneaking peeks at book covers. But when I see someone stare at her device, I have to cook up what she might be reading or doing. I’m no longer just observing. I’m creating. I’m making up the unobservable details.   

When I’m being as objective as I can be, I have to admit that what bugs me the most about the way other people use their devices is what I imagine they're using them to do.

I get irritated by what I project onto the screen of someone else’s device.

The irony is that this all plays out on my own mental screen.

Redirecting my imagination helps shift my reaction

When I stare at my phone as I lumber blindly through the park, I never feel like a zombie. I’m just sending an important text, snapping an image that has caught my eye, or capturing an interesting idea before I forget it.

I’m not under the spell of my device. I’m using my amazing high-tech Swiss Army Knife to communicate, photograph, and remember.  

We complain about how other people use their devices, but we celebrate how we use specific applications.

I would be a lot less disappointed by people if I could know for sure that they were doing something on my personal list of acceptable behaviors.   

But when I notice that a stranger’s real-time technology-related behavior is pushing my buttons, I can try to brainstorm a few things the person could actually be doing that I could get behind.

Would I still begin to lose hope in humanity if the teenager on the park bench was reading Tolstoy instead of checking Facebook?

Would I be as irritated by the woman scribbling into a notebook instead of her phone?

Would I be bothered by a group of friends taking snapshots with cameras?

When I’m willing to do this, I notice that redirecting my creativity liberates me from the compulsion to police the world.

Technology improves faster than human behavior

Observing yourself observing others can be a super uncomfortable attention exercise.

I highly recommend it.

It’s not about condoning obnoxious or dangerous tech habits.

It’s not about never feeling annoyed.

It’s about exploring options for relating to life’s inevitable annoyances that don’t add up to feeling alone.

Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash