You wake up. You roll over. You check your phone.
On your drive to work, you tell Siri to play Bruno Mars through your Bluetooth-enabled car stereo.
Between bites of lunch, you update your Facebook status. Between bouts of work, you send out a few tweets.
Get in bed. Check your phone. Fall asleep. Repeat.
This daily scenario, unimaginable to most of us even five years ago, has become a reality for millions.
As smartphones, iPads, Google Glasses and other Web-connected devices infiltrate nearly every aspect of our lives, from the classroom to the bedroom, the rickety roadblocks we’re constructing to keep that technology out of certain spaces and situations are tumbling more quickly than we can possibly track.
“Technology’s role in our lives? It would be hard to argue that it’s not moving faster today than ever in the history of mankind,” said University at Buffalo professor and social media expert Michael Stefanone. “I would predict that we’re going to reach a point where people stop accepting this change and they start becoming active in the conversation around what technology’s role is.”
In Western New York and across the Web, those conversations are just beginning to enter the mainstream. The tech onslaught and the challenges we’re throwing up against it are becoming visible everywhere: In coffee shops and classrooms, at family dinner tables and in local libraries. The challenges can be violent or subtle, from a moviegoer’s deadly attack on a man who was texting during movie previews to a police officer’s decision to ticket a California driver who was wearing Google Glass.
As the era of constant connectivity approaches, some are welcoming it with open arms.
Others are trying to hold it back by throwing up little challenges, each one a tiny analog sandbag in the face of a digital tidal wave.
When you walk into Prish Moran’s Sweetness7 coffee shop at the corner of Grant Street and Lafayette Avenue, chances are you won’t see a single person chatting on a cellphone. That is, unless you peek into the old-fashioned wooden phone booth Moran installed near the door for exactly that purpose.
The booth, which could easily be mistaken for a kitsch decoration, is a subtle suggestion to customers that they are in a community space where the old rules of social etiquette remain in effect.
“There’s no signs. People instinctively do it,” Moran said on a recent afternoon in her café as a dozen or so patrons chatted with one another or worked quietly on their laptops. During an hourlong interview, only one customer used his cellphone, dutifully leaving his comfy spot at the long wooden table in the center of the room and squeezing into the booth.
Stepping inside the booth, a cramped space designed for the smaller bodies of the mid-20th century, is like stepping through a wormhole and into the early ’80s. A hand-lettered sign covered in graffiti inside the booth reads “This is a business phone. Please limit calls to 5 minutes,” evoking images of salesmen in suits and ties out of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Moran said the booth is less a challenge to the intrusion of technology than an appeal to our forgotten manners. In her Grant Street shop, she said, the clientele share a built-in suspicion about the pervasiveness of technology. But in the other location of Sweetness7 on Parkside Avenue in North Buffalo, where Moran also installed a booth for cellphone conversations, attitudes about what’s appropriate are markedly different.
“If you notice looking around, there’s not a soul sitting here on a cellphone. Actually, there’s not a soul sitting with their phone out on the table, so what does that mean?” she said. Customers at her Parkside shop, she said, are much more likely to chat loudly on their phones and to need to be asked to use the booth.
To some extent, Moran – herself the proud owner of an iPhone that she checks upon waking up – realizes that her phone booths work better as nostalgic gestures than serious bulwarks against the onslaught of technology. She installed them for the same reason she resisted offering Wi-Fi in the Grant Street shop for the first three months it was open: She just wasn’t ready to give in.
“It wasn’t about money. It was about: turn your phone off, close your laptop and look around you. My interest really was pure,” Moran said. “I’m not feeding into this era of you and your machine.”
The era of you and your machine arrived anyway. But for the moment, Moran and her customers are still fending it off.
A ‘cell-free zone’
At Talking Leaves, the tiny neighborhood bookstore on Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway, it’s hard to miss the hand-drawn signs proclaiming that the space you’re about to enter is a “cell-free zone.”
For years, latte-wielding business people would duck into the quiet space of Talking Leaves to escape the clamor of Caffe Aroma next door to have loud phone conversations. It got so bad that the bookstore’s management decided to draw a line.
“We try to be as polite as possible and approach people and let them know that I’m sorry, this is a cellphone-free zone,” said Alicia Michielli, the store’s longtime assistant manager. “That’s to keep it a nice, comfortable atmosphere for all of our customers. Because people do talk about the most inappropriate things at very high volumes.”
What Talking Leaves managers can’t prevent, however, is when potential customers ask detailed questions about books or authors and then use their phones to scan or photograph books so that they can buy them later online. It’s another unanticipated effect of constant connectivity, a practice Michielli called “very offensive.”
“There’s not much we can do about that,” she added, “but we do try to let people be aware that we understand what you’re doing. And it’s not OK with us.”
Social Studies 2.0
When Web-connected technology makes its way into previously tech-free spaces, young people usually lead the charge. But in Paul Szymendera’s iPad-driven ninth-grade social studies class at Sweet Home High School, the traditional roles are reversed.
Szymendera, 39, is an early adopter and digital proselytizer of the first order. The hulking paper tray where he used to keep reams of daily handouts is now locked in a cabinet in his classroom. He speaks about his department’s photocopier with the kind of weary disdain most teachers reserve for students who claim their dogs ate their homework.
Which, as it turns out, none of Szymendera’s students can do, not least because dogs have a hard time digesting iPads.
On a recent Monday morning during his first-period social studies class at Sweet Home High School, a group of 25 honors students huddled in small groups to work on an assignment about ancient Rome. As Szymendera paced around the classroom, students hunched over their school-owned iPads, dragging images and bits of text from the Wikipedia page on Rome into an application called Notability. From there, students worked together to separate the information into categories which could then be shared digitally with one another and sent to their teacher.
While Szymendera shrugs off concerns about the potential distractions iPads create in the classroom and about malfunctioning technology, his students have mixed opinions.
“I don’t like that it’s a lot of technology in school,” said Sarah Routhier, a 14-year-old with an interest in art, after the day’s assignment was finished. “I feel like it’s going to ruin things like cursive and handwriting and things like that. … I don’t want it to ruin my creativity.”
Szymendera nicknamed another one of his tech-averse students “paper girl” for her habit of printing out every digital assignment and working on the physical version of it before digitizing it again with her iPad’s camera.
Other students welcome the technology, though the entire class expressed disappointment that school’s filtering technology blocks sites such as Facebook and Twitter and prevents them from downloading applications not approved by the district.
Sweet Home, which distributed iPads to all its ninth grade students in early February, allows students to put their own music and pictures on the devices.
“The amount of selfies is insane,” he said. “But, unintended consequence: By letting kids take pictures of themselves, for example, they can take ownership of the device.”
To an extent, Szymendera said, fears around the use of iPads and smartphones in classroom settings are driven by concern that students will become more isolated from the world around them. But in his class, he argued, the opposite has been the case.
“Too often people think that someone’s going to work like Schroeder on the piano and just be by themselves in isolation,” Szymendera said. The physical work the students are doing on their iPad isn’t much different than what they used to do on paper, he added, but “as soon as we share it, or as soon as a kid takes a picture of it and puts it into his notes, all of a sudden that’s really changing what we’re doing.”
For Stefanone, the UB professor whose research focuses on the negative effects of social media, it makes sense to be suspicious of technology’s intrusion into formerly private aspects of our lives.
“These tools, they promise to really connect us in ways that were possible before, but at the same time they’re also kind of isolating technologies,” he said in a Skype interview from Singapore, where he runs the communications department of UB’s study abroad program there. The norm on UB’s Amherst campus, he said, “is to see somebody staring down at their phone with earbuds in, also listening to music. So they’ve kind of got this wall, this technology wall around them, and they’re actually kind of difficult to approach.”
At UB and at colleges across the United States, where technological literacy is high and it’s impossible to limit students’ access to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, the problems of hyper-connectivity are perhaps more acute than anywhere else. These range from the narcissistic behaviors that platforms such as Facebook encourage to the decline in performance that is a proven result of constant multitasking.
Even so, research by Stefanone and his colleagues gives some reason for hope.
While many of us have more than 1,000 Facebook “friends,” he said, the basic size of our strong network of friends and family in the real world has not grown significantly since the 1950s.
“Consider yourself lucky if you’ve got 10 people in your life that you can ask anything of and who will always be there for you. A lot of people don’t have that,” Stefanone said. “In the end, these tools aren’t changing that number.”
Nor, he added, are all the technological advances making us any happier as a society.
“It doesn’t mater if you have 1,000 Facebook friends or 2,000 Facebook friends,” he said, citing a growing body of research on the link between social networks and psychological wellbeing. “The size of that network is meaningless in terms of your wellbeing, in terms of your happiness.”
At this transitional stage, with full digital penetration still years away, Stefanone and many other tech experts advise against drawing conclusions about whether the trend is positive or negative.
The technology, after all, is evolving much faster than we are.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, and what I’ve realized is that technology comes and goes,” Stefanone said. “People don’t change that quick.”