I was sitting at a child-friendly restaurant with my four year old, eating cheeseburgers, when I noticed a man across from us with his child. Our mirror image, except he was paying absolutely no attention to his child, who sat fiddling with his french fries, occasionally turning around to chit chat to my kid. This little boy was essentially unsupervised. Tsk tsk.
Last week or so I stumbled across the newest viral irony video—I think it was called Look Up or something—poetically encouraging us to quit staring at screens and talk to one another. Like we used to, right? Ah, the good old days. Those were some righteous times. Times of intense focus and serious relationships. Or were they? I tend to think the good old days are memories filtered through vanity. I don’t think the old days were much like the tales we tell about them.
From passing notes to Walkmans to doodling in the margins, I reckon most people are clever enough to come up with their own distractions when they want. In fact, I don’t reckon it’s the distractions themselves that are the problem. Worst comes to worst and I’ll resort to daydreaming. I think it’s more the case that when we don’t want to engage, we find ways even when, gasp, there aren’t any screens around. To lay the blame on the smartphone’s doorstep is its own kind of distraction—a distraction from our own guilt-packed desires to disengage, no matter the available media. People are responsible for actions, not things. Not buzz-humming gadgets. People.
Pictures. Everyone takes so many pictures because the pendulum has swung to visual culture, these days. To be honest, I find most people are lousy storytellers and I’m glad they take pictures! Of course, there are plenty of lousy photographers whose images are as mind-numbingly dull as plotless narrative. The good news is that in a world that still values the likes of J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin and Eleanor Catton, storytelling is alive and well, as vivid and engaging as ever. Moreover, memoir is one of the hottest genres around of late, and what’s memoir but a written version of a selfie. We probably oughtn’t tsk tsk too loudly when photographers point their cameras at themselves. After all, the writer is the main character in well-revered personal essay, and we don’t seem to tsk at them.
As I see it, if we quit looking for things in the world—things like distractions that lead to poor parenting, for example—and starting looking at things in the world, we’ll find there isn’t much new under the sun. Just continued sensational attempts at virality.
This brings me back to the burger joint. I’m watching this man paying almost zero attention to the world around him, and I hear the kid call him “Grandpa” and I think: I wish his smartphone, sitting idle next to him, would ring. Maybe that would distract him enough to put the damned newspaper down and talk to his grandson.