In my last six weeks of travel, and right now sitting in an airport terminal, I noticed how much I am surrounded by people hunched over their phones. In the airport. In restaurants. On the beach. On the beach. On the beach!

Of course…

So it’s easy to go Turkling and pass judgement on what you see in glance at strangers. Even if you see a lot of people immersed in their phones, how do you know what they are doing when your Great Sweeping Eye is on them?

A few years ago while traveling on the road, I was alone in a restaurant. Okay I admit it- it was a Denny’s in the bustling metropolis of Beatty Nevada. Taking a break from being hunched over my phone, I was looking around the room. A table of three people, early 20s, all bent over their phone. There it is. Judgement. This “kids” do not know how to converse. Ten minutes later, I glanced again- their phones were down, and they were laughing hysterically at each other.

What kind of truths do we reveal in a 10 second glance at someone? How is your life judged in someone else’s 10 second glance?

I am not denying that people focus a lot on their devices, and likely to the detriment of paying attention to each other. I don’t think the question is about them using devices in public.

I’d be more curious about what they are getting out of their device time. Is it fill time? Are they reading French literature? Telling someone they love them? Or they hate them? Do they look like they are being amused, or or they comatose?

It got me thinking about smoking.

No, I am not craving to smoke.

When I look for photos of people smoking, I seem to get these glamourous looking happy, beautiful people with cigarettes…

But when I think of the people I have seen smoking, they usually looked pained, twisted, in agony. Maybe I just did not spend enough time looking at smokers (not that I want to do), but it seems similar to the device attention- are you getting something out of that thing or not?

And so we press some plasma reality altering machine, and all mobile phones disappear, it is like they were never invented. Free of the infernal devices, are we suddenly more engaged with each other, overflowing with conversations of life’s mysteries and ethereal ponderings? Have you ever ridden a crowded elevator or ridden an urban subway where people in close proximity spend a lot of time and effort pretending each other does not exist?

It’s not the phones, Pogo, it’s us.

Look at people hunched over their phones, swiping away ay whatever they are doing. Do you know if they are happy? Alone? Connected? Fulfilled? Just by looking at them?

I like talking to people, making eye contact, smiling. But I also like focusing on reading, or tweeting silly things, or playing Words with Friends with my sister (she whupps me regularly). DO you want to judge my life by glancing at how I am hunched over my phone?

Just do not be so sure of assuming what folks are getting out of their screen experience. Yeah, it may be mind zapping Candy Crush, or endless Facebook swiping.

I don’t know and neither do you.

Ironically, a young lady sitting near me is hunched over her phone, and busting out in significant laughter. Who am I to judge her experience?

Top / Featured Image: My search for photos licensed to reuse via Google images took about 12 seconds to find more than I could use- the search was “people phones”. I liked the mix of intent and non-intent in this flickr photo by d:space shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. Food for thought! Why do we always seem to judge what people are doing, on their phones or other? BTW- Reading this off my phone…

  2. I took a photo of Jen at NV2008. She looked up seconds afterward, smiled, and said “my phone is full of people!” I won’t ever judge someone for looking at their phone. They could be talking with loved ones. Or chatting with the friend that couldn’t make it to Denny’s that day. Or just idly tweeting something silly. Or any of 7 billion other reasons. Not my place to judge.

  3. Well, I’m hunched over my phone in an Elmer’s in Woodburn, Oregon on a break from the five hour drive from Seattle to Eugene. So far, I have checked in with my online students, exchanged kissy faces with my husband on FaceTime, texted a recipe suggestion to my sister for the leftover salmon I overcooked at her house, read a chapter from “Better Living Through Criticism,” read a good blog post (yours) and replied.

    Disappear my phone, and I’d be sitting alone reading a germy copy of the local newspaper staring out at the gray and rainy parking lot waiting for my order to arrive. I know which reality I prefer!

  4. There’s a lot of theory and research into the tele-self and plenty of zany ideas about what would happen when, as it has, people have seemingly endless connections and amusements. That which deal with whether or not we become autotelic or reach a state of neo-evolution is really facilitating stuff. Autotelic activity is one we do for its own sake because to experience it (whatever it is) is the main goal … and unlike many things in life, these little screen constantly reward our brilliance at at attaining the goal (Candy Crush or swiping right). The question is whether or not we start to believe people have an [autotelic personality and the assured disorder that clinical psychology will insist accompanies it.

    You best work since “fear of a Googled past” … maybe …

    1. That full out tele-self was the world of Wall-E? Thanks for the description of “Autotelic”, interesting to ponder where that tips over. We might be so absorbed we do not see the incoming meteor.

      Best work? Gotta keep trying, thanks for reading. And commenting.

  5. Great post. It is very true that we are quick to judge others by many outward appearances that are not limited only to their mobile device use (weight, dress, attractiveness, …). Allow me to push back just a little and suggest that some of this needs to be contextually mediated. What I mean by this is that there are contexts where humans typically have never really interacted with one another – public transit (you’ve seen the juxtaposed photos of then and now), elevators (as you point out), airports and other waiting areas,… and then there are contexts where humans are expected to be interacting with one another F2F, like parties, dinner, family time, and other social gatherings of that nature. So, I think it is fair game to expect more in these contexts when individuals are immersed with “digital others” instead of those physically around them. This is why involved parents make rules about smartphone use at the dinner table, while others don’t… and sometimes also set poor examples for their own children in this regard. There is also the situation where F2F social interaction takes work (starting conversations, being interested in the lives of others over yourself,…) and it can be seductively easier to just tune out while retaining the appearance of being meaningfully engaged in important “stuff” on one’s device. I know. I’ve done it.

    But you’re correct – we often don’t know the struggles others are going through. However, in situations where it is appropriate to be more intimately involved with those around us, I think it is completely acceptable to expect a healthy level of attention and work to draw it out of others who are struggling with the mindfulness and dispositions required to engage this way.

    1. Thanks for that pushback Steve, totally on target about the location/context. In those public places of disconnect, it certainly can fill a gap where one might just be left to staring of in space. With our without phones, we can break some of those alone together barriers, sometimes with just a small smile or a nod. On the other hand, as someone with introverted tendencies, often I don’t want to be conversing.

      And absolutely it’s those times at the table, or elsewhere with friends/family that we are maybe having to figure out some new norms. Sometimes we just might need to force and out a request for devices down, especially if we are feeling neglected.

      This literally occurred to me while walking through a crowded beach in front of a hotel, and it was almost like 90% of the people were in a screen. So I pulled out my phone to tweet about it 😉

  6. I like my phone okay, it is a marvelous thing, –but more importantly, I like the people in my phone and I like that my phone lets me connect with them whenever.

  7. I think there is a lot of fear mongering about how technology is isolating us but in fact I feel more connected to friends and family around the world than ever before. It shouldn’t come at the cost of missing out on fun experiences but, like you, many of those on the beach may have been spending a few minutes to connect (or brag or comment about the fact that they are lying on a beach!) before putting it down. Sometimes experiences are heightened by our ability to text with a good friend about what we are seeing and feeling.

  8. While I agree with the basic premise of the article, I have to take strong exception to the term “Turkling.” To use it in the way you do is to completely misunderstand what Sherry Turkle says and does.

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