The blurry world of phone etiquette

Yesterday evening, I attended a talk given by William Kentridge, part of the Mentor & Protege program being showcased at the Baxter this weekend. Well, it was billed as a ‘workshop’, but it was more of a lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session. I was there with an art student friend who’d heard about it. It was funny and illuminating and surprising and delightful.

Next to me, my friend sat with a spiral notebook, jotting down occasional notes. On the other side of her sat a pair of women, one of whom pulled out a smartphone as the lecture started.  The woman had a blunt-looking stylus, with which she also jotted down occasional notes. It struck me how thoroughly disruptive the highly reflective, illuminated smartphone screen was, and how utterly ineffective the stylus marks were – each word looked like an illegible squiggle, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether the woman was sorry not to have a good old notepad and pen. But she also a exuded a sort of excitement in her squiggling, so I figured perhaps this was a way of feeling she was engaging with the lecture, converting it to this odd document of electronic pen marks. I tried to dispel my own irritation at the disturbance; after all, there had been no announcement asking the audience to turn off their phones.

But then, five or ten minutes in, as Kentridge showed one of his animated films, the woman raised her smartphone to film or photograph it. I leaned over, touched her on the arm, and asked her please to stop. She looked highly annoyed, and hissed back “Why?” “It’s very disruptive,” I replied. She put it down, bristling somewhat and the lecture continued. I didn’t really think about it again until it ended, and she turned to me, still bristling with fury and delivered a monologue about her reasons for photographing the animation, ending by declaiming “You have very bad manners!” before she stormed off.

Thing is, if there’s no announcement before a public lecture or workshop or performance, what is the protocol regarding phones? I would have thought that the photographing or filming of any event in a public theatre space is a no-go area, unless permission has been explicitly granted. This woman seemed to suggest I was infringing on her right to experience/record this event. Is that the case? Surely not?

The thing is, smartphones are not just phones anymore. A smartphone is a telephone, it’s a camera, a videocamera, a dictaphone, a reference book, a notepad, a pencil and paper. It’s all of those things, in such a shiny hi-tech package that the person using it feels like they are increasing the value of an experience by mediating it with said phone. I just find myself wondering: at an event where you have paid for a ticket in order to be present, and others have done the same, do you have the right to hold up a recording device in the middle of it? Do you have the right to text in the palm of your hand, pretending the reflective glow of your phone isn’t interrupting the experience of anyone sitting around you? Maybe I’m hypersensitive, but the glow of a mobile phone four rows away in a cinema fills me with the furious desire to leap over the seats, rip it away from its inconsiderate user and send it skittering along the popcorn-strewn floor, never to be seen again.

Little makes me feel like such a curmudgeonly Luddite as the appearance of a mobile phone at a dinner table. Surreptitious texting/BBM-ing is the worst. Surreptitious checking of texts/emails/BBMs comes in a close second. It is perhaps forgivable in teenagers, who have neither the self-control nor sufficient self-awareness to realise that they might as well be sending up a flare saying “I’d rather be elsewhere”; “I’d rather be talking to someone else”; or, more accurately: “I just have to check what’s going on in case there’s something cooler happening/being said somewhere other than here.”

To me, the intrusive mobile phone interaction is all about being not-present. You are not present with the people around you; you are declaring your disinterest in, and disregard for, the here and now. Ironically, there is seldom a conscious choice here; it’s as likely that the texter is checking a junk mail email or  bulk SMS as they are checking anything of actual interest. We simply live in times where our phones and computers endlessly promise that a bell is about to ring heralding some gift-nugget of information or experience or surprise that is not on offer in the very real present.

I like blogging. I like texting and tweeting. I check my email and Facebook and Twitter and blogs as much as the next technophile. I let my child play on my iPad at restaurants and coffee shops and social gatherings. But is there not some middle ground, where we recognise that, in some settings, an electronic device is an interruption, an intrusion? And that – despite the ubiquity of the devices –  recording on them in a public setting raises both copyright issues and permission issues. And consideration issues. There are ways of embracing technology without turning into an inconsiderate shmuck.



About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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One Response to The blurry world of phone etiquette

  1. Dear Lisa – thank you for expressing, so eloquently, my feelings on the subject. Douglas Rushkoff, in “Present Shock” analyses the intersection of technology and culture; where everything happens ‘now’, but not necessarily ‘here-and-now’. For me, the concept of Presence embraces both space and time. Much love – Adrian

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