Being There

I see people on their phones on buses, trains, and even bicycles. On the streets as they walk to and fro, and in every other conceivable venue and context. They’re preoccupied with the tiny screen in their hands, texting, browsing, gaming. I’m guilty of this myself, of course, though I’d like to think not to the same extent as most, and certainly with a far greater sense of self-awareness and guilt and annoyance about it.

I can’t pinpoint exactly why smartphone usage has become so ubiquitous. I suppose it’s simple on some level. Cell phones are convenient. Games are fun. The internet is entertaining. But I do think it’s about slightly more than that too. People don’t want to feel awkward. They don’t want to be bored. And they certainly don’t want to stand around and be made aware of their awkwardness, their boredom, their loneliness.

It seems obvious to argue for not being too detached from the world, to take in your immediate surroundings that are present and real and physical. You have this constant need for artificial stimulation, and soon you become dependent on it: the serenity, the quiet moments, the nothingness of life are things that you can’t appreciate or even tolerate. It’s like the whole thing about taking too many pictures and missing the experience of actually being somewhere.

There are times when this is painfully obvious. I sat at dinner recently with a party of eight, and there was a five minute stretch of silence because everyone was on their phones, literally posting pictures of food they had just taken and then liking and commenting on each other’s posts. Like everyone else, I’ve had to avoid walking into people who weren’t looking up, and witnessed others almost getting creamed by bikes or cars because one party – or both – was distracted.

A lot of times though, there isn’t this black and white. I wonder if it really makes a difference that I have my nose in a book rather than in my phone fiddling with the browser, or that I pore through a restaurant’s menu for the third time instead of my Twitter feed while waiting for food to come out. I can look out the window of my train, I can nosily engage in people-watching, I can refresh the front page of the New York Times. Does it matter?

I live in a country where smartphone usage is ubiquitous, especially among younger generations. By any number of measures – ownership, market growth, app downloads – Japanese consumers are unrivaled in the way they have taken to the technology. As an expat, it thus becomes even more attractive: the smartphone represents not just the norm, but the familiar, allowing access to news, culture, language – to home.

But that the circumstance would heighten those feelings of isolation and loneliness and boredom only makes me more defiant at times.  I see the smartphone as the easy way out, as a means of rejecting my reality, of escaping the situation by retreating into a bubble. I am intent on being here in the moment as much as possible. Even if it means being uncomfortable, I will experience what is around me. But again, does it really matter?

I wonder if the idea of life and living I imagine is a nostalgic, romanticized version, one that never really had any connection to reality, one that certainly does not incorporate the reality that surrounds us now, the new means of interaction and connection and so forth. I’d like to think I’m free from an overreliance on technology. I’d like to think that I can cope with boredom and awkwardness. I’d like to think I have some semblance of self-ease, of inner peace.

But maybe I’m just overthinking things. Maybe a smartphone is just a smartphone, and using it more or less doesn’t reflect my character, doesn’t reveal my shortcomings. Maybe for 40 minutes on the train, I can take advantage of its transience, and be entertained by the internet, and have some mindless fun with games. And maybe when I get off the train, I can just go about my day, and experience all that is around me.

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