The relationship I have with my electronic devices is intimate. I take my laptop to bed, my tablet to the bathroom and my phone to dinner. What began fifteen years ago as a monogamous arrangement with a Nokia phone that had a screen the size of an iPhone icon, along with an antenna and the game Snake, evolved into a lively threesome when I got a laptop for my 18th birthday. And for the past year and a half, we’ve enjoyed the company of a sidekick: a tablet.
It’s been going well, mostly, thanks for asking. Laptop occasionally heats up, but I manage to cool it down fairly quickly by quitting a few applications. Tablet sometimes loses power without warning; then I threaten to replace it with printed books, which makes it recharge fast.
But then there’s iPhone. It’s 2 years old and wears colorful protection (better to be safe than sorry). I used to take it with me everywhere. During meals with friends, iPhone was next to me on the table, or at least within reach in my bag or pocket. At parties, when there was no one else to talk to, I would get intimate with it, letting it light up my face in full view of everyone, the validation that I was needed and loved.
When it went silent for too long, I would get angry. I found its lack of support frustrating. Couldn’t I expect it to buzz once in a while, so that I could pretend I was really annoyed by the interruption, even though I knew that the message or call or notification was its way to show approval? What was the point of bringing a completely silent addition to the party? When my phone buzzed a lot, I would apologize, but I wasn’t really sorry.
But then, a few months ago, I read about the launch of the Shabbos App. Apparently, the creators found loopholes in Jewish law that allow sending messages during the Sabbath. A fully functional version will launch in March 2015.
Given my troubles with iPhone, I read about the heated debate that ensued. Even though I’m not Sabbath observant, the halachic aspects of the discussion (for example, the app makes texting permissible by allowing the user to input only whole words rather than individual letters) were interesting. There were those arguing in favor: The Forward’s Julie Sugar wrote that the extent to which the Sabbath is observed should be an individual decision. Critical voices, such as rabbis Eliyahu Fink and Aharon Wexler, maintained that the app destroys the communality of the Sabbath, where no one is distracted by the use of the Internet.
Our phones distract us so easily because who we know has often become more important for our reputation than the things we own. Smartphones are the status symbols of those who live in societies where social capital has almost caught up in importance with physical capital. They are the Mercedes-Benzes of our generation. But while the expensive cars stay outside during dinner and pollute the air, the phones come with us to the table and pollute the conversation.
The debate about the app made me realize how damaging my relationship with iPhone had become. Its buzz makes me worse at listening — because paying attention to another person while abandoning my own frame of reference and judgment can be really exhausting. We prefer to listen until we hear something we can relate to, and chime in with our own stories. And then iPhone buzzes, reminding us that whatever happens in our own lives is more interesting and important than what you’re listening to anyway.
Maybe in 2015 we should treat every meal and conversation with others like the Sabbath — but without the app. I will use my iPhone like a Mercedes (if I owned one): It has to wait obediently outside before I offer to give it a ride home. Because hey, we never were exclusive anyway, right?
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture fellow and edits the Fast page. Follow her on Twitter @angoldna