Missing Out: a response to “Look Up” and the argument that my iPhone is evil

So this post is a bit different from what I usually write here, but I’m feeling the need to get on a soapbox about something I’m seeing a lot of these days. It’s probably not what you might think. It’s about attitudes about our use of technology, and people’s fear of it turning us all into zombies at worst, or poor wretched souls with no life who will one day die alone, at best.

(Disclaimer: I’m feeling more sarcastic than usual.)

There’s a video called “Look Up” going around. Its point is that we’re too absorbed in our screens and we’re missing out on life going on around us. That “social media” is making us antisocial. Sound familiar? The more ubiquitous Facebook and smartphones become, the more I keep seeing videos, tweets, and blog posts telling us to sign out of Facebook and Twitter, turn off our phones, and live life. (Also a little ironic.) But the more I hear this message, the less I agree with it.

The sentiment is valid. It’s entirely true that we can spend too much time looking at our screens. There’s the classic scenario of a group of people sitting around a dinner table, all looking at their phones and not talking to each other. And yes, this happens—probably more often than it should. But I don’t think that makes our phones bad. Or social media. Or the internet. I think it’s healthy to keep our use of these things in check. I’ve taken steps to do that myself. But I think these videos, and this one in particular, can take the message too far.

The fact is, you can have too much of anything good. The fact that gluttony and the obesity caused by it are rampant, especially in the developed world, doesn’t make food evil. It’s entirely necessary to life itself. The other half of the world is suffering and dying from a lack of it. (Another huge issue that I’m not about to tackle in this post.)

Now, I can’t make the case that technology is necessary to life. It’s not on the same level as food, anyways. But technology is enabling so much life. It’s bordering miraculous what we are able to do these days because of technology and the internet. If we traveled to a couple decades ago with an iPad, it would blow people’s minds. (The time traveling probably would, too.) If people from a few hundred years ago saw us with our iPhones, they would think we were sorcerers. And lives are being saved every day by technology.

The human race, contrary to what these videos are saying, is more connected than ever. And the entire sum of mankind’s knowledge is available to us literally at our fingertips, almost anywhere on the planet—even to people orbiting it. And startups from Silicon Valley to Germany to India are coming up with apps and devices every day to solve problems and make life better for lots of people.

My friends and family are scattered across the globe. But because of Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, and iMessage, I can stay in touch with them in a way no generation has been able to, ever. Gone are the days where you send a letter to another continent by ship and get a reply months later. Now, if we coordinate time zones (technology hasn’t quite fixed everything yet) I can see a friend in the mountains of Asia face to face, and talk to them in real time.

The video goes on to make a distinction between being alone reading a book, painting, or doing something else “productive”, and being alone on the internet. Saying that reading a book is enriching and constructive and surfing the web is not. Because there’s nothing at all worth reading on the internet (including this post), and no mindless trash has ever been published in the form of a book, ever. (That was sarcasm, by the way.) And how are kids learning to code at a young age, learning the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for it, and creating their own apps, not being constructive? Or children with autism who, given iPads, are able to express themselves and show creativity in a way they never could before? (True examples. Google them. The information’s at your fingertips, remember?)

The second half of that video tells the story of a chance encounter, where a guy asks a girl for directions, and they end up going on a date, and then getting married, and all about them becoming parents and then grandparents, and blah blah blah. But the guy would’ve missed all that if he’d been using his iPhone for directions. Come on, really? Keep that in mind next time you ask someone for directions. You might end up marrying them.

I’m tired of being told that all this technology is making me more disconnected from the people I care about, when I know for a fact that the opposite is true. I’m tired of being told I’m going to miss out on life because I have an iPhone and use it. Not only have I made lots of memories hanging out with friends, but technology has made it easier than ever to plan those times, coordinate meeting up, and capture those moments to remember them. I’m tired of being told that technology is bad when the world is so much better off because of it. Going back to the developing world—if the right technology could be made accessible and affordable in developing nations it could have a huge impact. I’m not talking about everyone being able to watch cat videos. I’m talking about being able to solve real problems.

So yes, don’t be a jerk to your friends and spend the whole evening playing with your phone. But if you do, that’s your problem, not your phone’s. What I don’t want us to miss out on or take for granted is the huge potential in those phones, and the way they—and all the technology we have available to us—are making the world a better place.

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