Commentary: Digital gadgets diminish our attention to real life

The Kansas City StarDecember 5, 2011 

A young woman pointed to the seat next to mine on a recent flight, prompting me to stand in the aisle so she could move in.

Airplane trips afford us opportunities for encounters with strangers. It’s a chance to have conversations with people we’d otherwise never meet. There’s usually excitement in learning where others are going and why, where they’ve been, if they have children and what their dreams are.

But just as security in airports, baggage charges and meager “snacks” have become the norm for air travel, so have opportunities diminished to speak with strangers.

It’s not like there’s a no-talking policy in terminals or on flights, but more people today are preoccupied with their electronic gadgets. Once the woman on my flight sat by the window next to me, I said hello and started a conversation until I realized I was talking to myself.

Like a lot of people in airports and on flights today, she had ear buds planted in her head. The wire snaked to an unseen gadget in a backpack at her feet. The world as far as she was concerned didn’t exist, and the people she encountered were to be stepped over.

Once the plane took off and had reached its cruising altitude, a flight attendant said it was OK for people to use their electronic devices. Some pulled out laptops. An older couple played a game on a smart phone. Across the aisle a young man opened his iPad, plugged in ear buds and began watching a movie.

TV commercials show that things like that are possible now for people waiting in dreadful places like motor vehicle licensing offices. It is no surprise that more people are spending more time fiddling and playing online.

A Nielsen “State of the Media” study found that Americans in May spent 53.5 billion minutes on Facebook and that social networks and blogs accounted for 23 percent of the time that people in this country spent online. Women ages 18 to 34 were the greatest social networking service users.

The study noted that more women than men watched videos on social networking services. However, men spent more time watching videos and watched more of them. The report said that 53 percent of social networking service users follow brands and 32 percent follow celebrities.

The danger is the apps, blogs, Twitter and Facebook make celebrities and faux friends, whom we may never meet, more appealing than real people in seats or on the street.

A John S. and James L. Knight Foundation survey of 12,090 high school students and 900 teachers found that kids have a greater appreciation of the First Amendment to the Constitution because of social media. However, many teachers thought the digital connections harmed instead of enhanced student learning.

Gadgets siphon away people’s focus from real life. Anyone can see it in today’s airports.

Young people are the “digital natives” — kids who grew up with computers, the Internet and cell phones. To them it’s as much a part of life as eating and sleeping.

I have used free Internet services while waiting in airports, but at some the experience is terribly frustrating because it’s impossible to get connected and read without a plethora of advertising clogging my computer.

On the recent flight, the pull-down food trays were covered with a blood-red ad for a high-speed smart phone. The flight attendants also used the public address system on the plane to advertise a product, which some wanted.

It’s no different from billboards and commercials people have to put up with in their homes, in movie theaters, on the street, in stores and even public restrooms. Ads pull us away from personal encounters and titillate folks with more marketing of products and services. That’s become our new social norm.

The overall effect diminishes individuals, communities, civic engagement and opportunities to learn from others.

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