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Smartphones aren’t making us dumb; social networks aren’t making us antisocial. Technology is a tool, and it’s time we all stopped blaming it for our problems and took responsibility for our terrible digital habits.

Decrying the evils of social media is the topic du jour…on social media. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates this trend better than “Look Up“, a YouTube video that went viral earlier this year.

Gary Turk, who made the video, clearly put a lot of work into the project – and was rewarded. The video bounced around Facebook faster than a cat riding a Roomba, and is verging on 45 million views as of this writing.

The rhyme scheme’s annoying, and at times somewhat cloying – but the visuals are great, with a message we can relate.

To.

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A message we can relate to. A message to which we can relate?

Whatever. I’m bad at rhymes.

Do Smartphones Prevent Love? (No.)

Anyway, if you can’t get over the rhythmless rhyme scheme long enough to watch this video, let me give you a summary. The first half points out that smartphones are distracting us from the entirety of life. You’ll see people looking at phones instead of each other, complaints about how no one talks to each other on trains anymore, and a few playgrounds that are empty – presumably because those pesky kids just love their friggin’ video games.

The second half gets around to telling a story. A man doesn’t have a smart phone, and as such has to ask a woman for directions.

look-up-no-smartphone-good

Obviously they fall in love immediately, and a montage of the two of them paying attention to each other and actually living life commences. Marriage, kids, old age – all because he asked for directions.

The video concludes with a repeat of the scene where the loving couple first met – but this time, the man has a smartphone in hand. Instead of asking for directions, he looks up where to go. Tragedy! He walks right past the girl he should have married, unaware his life is ruined.

look-up-smartphone-bad

See: technology is bad!

An Alternate Story

I should be a sucker for this message. I’ve made my dislike of smartphone zombies clear in the past, and I myself do not own a smartphone Why This Technology Blogger Does Not Own a Smartphone [Opinion] Why This Technology Blogger Does Not Own a Smartphone [Opinion] "Do you have a smartphone yet?" It's a question my friends ask often, and it's a reasonable one to ask. I make my entire living writing about technology, explaining how to use software and interviewing... Read More .

But this doesn’t resonate with me, at all – possibly because my marriage wouldn’t have ever happened without the Internet. My wife and I met in person, but lived apart for an entire year shortly after meeting. I fell in love staring at a screen, reading her emails every night and responding with my own.

look-up-gmail

If this video was about me, it would feature the college me deciding not to spend time in the computer lab after class, instead being attentive to the people around me in “the real world”. Then cheating on my girlfriend.

I then never get married, and die. Alone. Attentive to my surroundings, but alone.

See: technology is good!

It’s Up To You

Of course that’s stupid. My story doesn’t prove technology is connecting us any more than the story in “Look Up” shows it’s driving us apart. Any object – a car, a smartphone, a television – can be used in a way that connects you with other people or a way that isolates you. It’s entirely up to you.

My problem with this video isn’t that I don’t think there’s a problem: there is. We’re an increasingly distracted society. But “Look Up” blames the technology too much, and the people using that technology too little.

You have agency. If you feel isolated because you spend too much time on Facebook, stop using it to read about other people’s lives and start using it to plan get-togethers with your friends. If you find video games take up so much of your time that you never socialize, make a promise to yourself to only play games with other people.

You’re not being controlled by your gadgets – you’re controlling them. At least, you should be – and if you’re not, you have only yourself to blame.

TV Brings Us Together!

I’ve got another minor complaint. Bear with me.

Right in the middle of the montage of the couple actively paying attention to each other, we see this:

look-up-togetherness

What is this couple doing? Watching a movie together – presumably, on a television.

That’s right, television. The soul-sucking diversion of yesteryear. Think about it: if this video was made in the 1960s, it would be about how TV is distracting us from the real moments in our lives. In 2014, apparently, TV is such a natural part of human existence that watching it with a loved one is a visual symbol of togetherness (provided you also smear your loved one’s face with ice cream). At least you’re not staring at your smartphone.

This brings to mind a famous quote from Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I realize the TV scene was a quick shot in a montage that included lots of other together time, but its inclusion is revealing. Technologies predicted to redeem or destroy the world usually do neither Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web Technologies Predicted To Redeem Or Destroy Society & What They Teach Us About The Web The Internet makes censorship impossible and will bring down corrupt regimes around the world. It will lead to an era of absolute transparency, which will inevitably lead to more equality and more justice. Disagree? Try... Read More , and the current cultural obsession with social media is a modern incarnation of that trend.

TV Isn’t Inherently Antisocial – And Neither Is Your Phone.

It’s possible to watch TV in such a way that you feel more, not less, connected to the people you’re with – it’s why going to see a movie is a popular date. Shared experiences give you something to talk about with the people you love. It’s also possible, of course, to use TV as a replacement for social interaction – to use it as a distraction. But that doesn’t mean that TV is bad.

look-up-TV

The same is true of smartphones, social media and the Internet. It’s up to you whether you use them to connect with other people, or to isolate yourself.

The idea that time spent on your smartphone is inversely related to time that could be spent falling in love is wrong. It’s all about what you’re using your devices to do. If you use them as an alternative to living life, that’s a problem. But the device itself isn’t to blame for that: you are.

Take control of how you use your devices. Use social networks, and your phone, actively instead of just passively consuming whatever comes your way. Be intentional about using social media in a meaningful way, and it will enhance your life; use it passively, and it might not. Take control of your information diet Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Eating Only Dessert: Why Your Information Diet Is Probably Terrible [Feature] Email. Social networks. Blogs. Online video. People today consume more information than ever before, and typically only consume the things they really, really like. Clay Johnson compares this to a bad diet. "If you only... Read More and your time spent online will be productive; passively consume crap and it won’t. It’s all about intention.

But hey: I could be wrong. Let’s talk. Is technology a tool we can use, or is there something about social networks and smart phones that inherently distracts? Have I missed the point of this video? Is the rhyme scheme better than I’m giving it credit for? Comments, below, etc.

Image Credits: ClearFrost Via Flickr

  1. Charles R
    July 31, 2014 at 2:48 am

    I found it super ironic that the video has so many views, most likely from people sharing it and feeling like they did something, but instead going right back to looking at their devices. Can we talk about that phenomenon, "armchair activism"?

  2. Susan Howard
    July 31, 2014 at 2:39 am

    I have a love of books, yes the old fashioned kind and the new kindle kind :) Do I ignore my boyfriend when I am reading a book? YES! I can't help it, I just can't stop reading. However, when I read the same book a friend does it brings us closer together and gives us something to share and talk about. So old technology, new technology, it doesn't matter. It's ultimately how we interact with others that matters.

  3. Rachel R.
    July 30, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Spot on!

    (Although I would add to this whole discussion that it is our responsibility as the adults in our culture to TEACH wise use of social media, and good manners with relation to technology use, to the YOUNG PEOPLE. We kind of do have a whole generation coming up that, as a whole, doesn't even grasp the concept that it's rude to completely ignore your companions through an entire meal because your eyes are glued to your phone for completely unrelated and non-emergency reasons.)

    • Justin P
      July 30, 2014 at 10:09 pm

      Plenty of adults need to learn the same lesson.

  4. Maria
    July 30, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    This video is not about getting rid of the smartphone. That genie is out of the bottle. Pandora's box has been opened [insert metaphor of choice here.] The point of the video is to freaking "look up." This is about setting appropriate boundaries around our technology. Will people do it? Most folk don't choose the road less travelled because it's often more difficult to navigate (thought I would argue, more fulfilling.) We are up against human nature here folks. Good luck with that.

    • david sharp
      August 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Appropriate boundaries..you nailed it there

  5. bben
    July 30, 2014 at 10:08 am

    I do have a 'smart phone' I don't use it much, and always put it away whenever I find myself in a social situation. I am constantly being shut out by people right in front of me that absolutely MUST check their 'smart' phone right now. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation they pull it out an look at the screen , then get interested in something and the conversation just ends. They sit there in front of me staring at their smart phone - or, "Hey look at this". Just like a lot of other things there is a time and place for smart phones - and far too many people believe that time is always right now at the place is always wherever they are.

  6. C. Jester
    July 30, 2014 at 5:16 am

    All things in moderation. Great words to live by. I wish I could. I love technology and all the gadgets. I spend way to much time on line and of course, on Facebook. I also work for a living and have a very active social life. As long as I feel some sense of balance, I don't worry about it. Loved the article. Thanks for giving some perspective to that video. She could have just as easily told him to leave her alone when he asked for directions.

  7. Tom W
    July 29, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    Since the dawn of time society has been mis-using new and unusual things as handy scapegoats so they don't have to focus on the real problems. For the past few decades, it has been technology-related, as with the current obsessions with smartphones, but there were many examples before that. As usual, there is an xkcd strip that explains my point far better than I can. http://xkcd.com/1227/

    • Justin P
      July 30, 2014 at 2:47 pm

      There's always a relevant XKCD. Always. And this is one of my favourite ones.

  8. Vnay T
    July 29, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Justin, Hope you've checked this one out. This one's a parody video "Look Down" to this viral "Look Up" :D https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zEgUeWLxRI

    • Justin P
      July 30, 2014 at 2:47 pm

      Missed this one, thanks for sending it my way! Not sure I entirely agree with that it's saying, but I had a few laughs.

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