Monday, 12 May 2014

on smartphones, social media and "Looking Up"

The kids are all posting this video on Facebook and being like "yeah, totes" and it is hurting my feelings. It is hurting my feelings because I do not like to be called an idiot.

I've given you the link, because it's worth watching so you understand exactly where I'm coming from for this post. I've watched it thrice, to be sure it really did annoy me beyond regular amounts, and not just that I was having a bad internet day. 

My understanding of this spoken word piece is that its creator, presumably now crazy-famous Gary Turk (it's had over 35 million views) is lamenting our use of smartphones, feeling that we miss out on the better things in life because we are looking down at screens instead of looking up, living our lives.

Most people are totally on board, which is a bit intimidating. Particularly because I am about to tell you all that I think it's bullshit.

Ignoring the fact that this guy made a video to post to YouTube, and ignoring the money he stands to make from having the piece go viral in such a short amount of time, and ignoring that the thing is spoken word which I'm normally all for (this one and this one rock my world), I have some things to say.

A smartphone is ultimately another human-made tool. But folks, with great smartphone comes great responsibility. You are in control of your own touchscreen. It's as much part of your life as you want it to be - you own it, it does not own you. My largest and most singular issue is that "Look Up" seems to imply it's overtaken us all and made us zombies; "A world where we're slaves to the technology we mastered".

Are we really that scared of technology? Is Skynet coming to kick our sorry asses for creating it? Terminator is not a documentary, children. While I'm as excited about the apocalypse as the next person, I don't believe that smartphones are going to bring the world crashing down around our ears. 

To be fair, that's not exactly what old mate Gary is saying. He is really emphasizing the human connections we miss when we look downwards at our trusty iPhone 4S's with a single crack running diagonally through their screen, and they smile their battered smiles back at us... oh wait, no, I can't have a relationship with a smartphone.*breaking heart noise*

Except that I know all this. Before I pull out my favourite rhyming couplets from "Look Up" (provided by Jez Kemp, who also has a bit to say on this subject) to examine and burn with acid, my overall issue with Mr Turk is that his piece is a prescriptive text. He takes it upon himself to tell us all firstly that our lives are empty, and follows up with what we should be doing instead. What we should be doing with our smartphones - I'll tell you what you can do with yours, friend (too much? Sorry. Diminished capacity for empathy, too much Candy Crush Saga). 

He tells us to put down our phones and experience our lives, like he knows our lives. Like his realisation is so fucking precious we should fall down thanking him for bringing to our attention the meaninglessness of our sorry, screen-filled realities. Privileged White Man alert.  We could argue for free speech, and that he was just having a beautiful, heartfelt opinion, sure. We could argue that, but for the sheer production quality of the YouTube clip. The music? The poorly acted newly pregnant couple? The care taken to ensure "Look Up" went viral leaves me cold, and simultaneously, slightly thirsty.

I flat-out resent being told that as a Gen Y, my life lacks meaning, or lingers in black white and grey rather than technicolour because I have a relationship and ease with a level of technology that my parents supposedly don't have (I have enough instances in my pocket that I may just beg to differ with the 'technological divide'). Elite Daily, a website that calls itself "The Voice of Gen Y" (cringe) posted a link to the video - this was the first time I came across it- titling the post "This Is One Of The Most Vital Messages Gen Y Needs To Hear" (another pet hate for another time: Capitalising Each Word In An Article Title). 

I have 422 friends, yet I am lonely.
I speak to all of them every day, yet none of them really know me.
I have 525 friends. Suck it, dude.

Not even touching the fact that you can't and don't speak to 422 people online everyday, let's look at how you might want someone to know you, as a friend. In the real world, how many of your face-to-face friends would you say really know you? Personally, I'd say 15% of my friends know me extremely well, perhaps another 20% know me quite well, another 30% know me well enough to be clear on what sort of things I'm interested in talking about or giving my energy to. That leaves 35% of friends that sit just this side of acquaintance, or as my brother might call it, the "maybe pile". And I'm a very social person at this stage of my life. 

Is "Look Up" bemoaning the nature of smartphones, or is this about Facebook specifically? It seems to me that it's really social media taking a beating here, but it's a confused message.

If you, as the audience, have felt a twang of recognition at this particular rhyming couplet, I respectfully suggest that if social media makes you feel lonely, chances are you feel lonely in general. Perhaps I am cavalier in saying this, and I'm not out to hurt anyone's feelings, but after giving it large amounts of thought, I have decided that sometimes, feeling lonely is ok. No-one can know your mind, not exactly. This is not your smartphone's fault, or Facebook's fault. This is human nature. Welcome to it.

A world of self interest, self image and self promotion
Where we all share our best bits but, leave out the emotion.

Smartphone are not to blame; that's people, folks. We're rarely honest about ourselves with people we don't know particularly well. We're rarely honest with about ourselves with ourselves. If you are only just realising it's an imperfect world out there, what you need is not so much to "look up" as it is to, as they say, "drink more whisky". If your management of your online presence is making you feel like an emotionless faker, change it. Know yourself - take this opportunity, right now, to choose what works for you. Be yourself, or be someone else, but don't pretend it's out of your control. 

Being alone isn't a problem let me just emphasize
If you read a book, paint a picture, or do some exercise
You're being productive and present, not reserved and recluse
You're being awake and attentive and putting your time to good use

So many thoughts here.

I firstly do not owe anyone productivity, presence, alertness, art or fitness. And this one may be just me, but fuck I'm rude when I'm reading a book. The world disappears for me and is replaced by a fictional one put together by the author of whatever I am reading. Am I doing it wrong? Dirty books, keeping me from looking up.

The awesome Tavi Gevinson touched on an awesome thing in her editorial for the May edition of Rookie on the theme of 'Together'. She says: 
"I don’t think there has to be anything particularly vile about the fact that the internet has often been, and will more often be, the on ramp en route to a feeling of Together. I get that something feels less sincere about sharing stuff on a site with “likes” and “reblogs” than on a typewriter, or in the sand, or using tiny twigs like a Wes Anderson credits sequence, but there was a time when even novels were conceived of as tacky and dangerous to society. And now everyone wants to save the printed word! If you have nothing to lose, nothing to prove, and don’t think being in public is necessarily a performance, the way I, and many other people reading this, have grown up—typing out our feelings to friends we’ve never met, sharing life’s minutiae when it seems to have some value—is not intrinsically dirty, some kind of loss, or less truthful than the way our parents did it."

At one point or another, writing on paper threatened the spoken word, radio threatened books, tv threatened radio, internet threatened tv. Don't even get me started on rock & roll and what it's doing to the kids.

I can't stand to hear the silence of a busy commuter train
When no one wants to talk for the fear of looking insane.
We're becoming unsocial, it no longer satisfies
To engage with one another, and look into someone's eyes.

So listen. There is a certain way that it feels to be a woman on a train when an unknown man starts to interact with her in an unwelcome way. Often this is done with the belief they are being friendly, which quickly turns to aggression when the so-called (unrequested) "friendliness" is not responded to or reciprocated. I've seen it happen. It's happened to me. That's my personal space and I shall fill it as I see fit. I refuse to agree this makes me antisocial. It is my right.

We're a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people.

You are.

The time you want to start a family, and the moment when
You first hold your little girl, and get to fall in love again.
The time she keeps you up at night, and all you want is rest.

I'm anecdotally certain that social media and smartphones give mums of young children a connection to friends, family and other mums that they don't always have the time, energy or chance to have otherwise. Talking about your experiences, successes and failures as a parent, I have to assume, must be a way of normalising your experience - you're not alone, and there are millions of mums online to prove it. Sharing photos and videos of your little ones with your 422 extended family and friends seems to connect you in a way that isn't possible in real life. It's through Instagram, Facebook and texted videos that I have the incredible privilege of watching my friends kids grow up, whether they're in Melbourne or Vancouver. Not easily huggable doesn't equate to unknowable, and while the visits I get to have are precious, the other bits are the sweetener. If I didn't see how cute they were getting, where would the impetus be to fly to faraway places to see them?

So don't give into a life where you follow the hype
Give people your love, don't give them your 'like'
Disconnect from the need to be heard and defined
Go out into the world, leave distractions behind.

It's not hype, and it's not a phase. Social media has been around long enough that it's a part of everyday life. It's most definitely part of mine, and I love it. When I'm not digging social media, that's the point where I go and do something else. I'll tell you this - it normally has nothing to do with Facebook or my smartphone and everything to do with me. 

Because I am an adult in control of my mental facilities, I recognise and understand this. I'm going to give you the credit to assume you're capable also, but if there's a market for it, I could run workshops for you all. Maybe things have gotten really terrible and if I'd only looked up, I would understand. Yeah? Nah?

Also: there are many distractions out in the world. Hello, have you ever heard of shiny things? Wine? Opshopping? 

There is a danger in marathon games of 500; a darkness at the heart of every Monopoly tournament.

Look up from your phone. Shut down that display. 
Stop watching this video. Live life the real way.

Now it sounds like a cult. If it's antisocial to be on your phone around your friends, it's antisocial to push your cultish tendencies on your friends.

Samsung is also to be feared and revered.
Before I let you go, if your now-limited attention spans haven't lead you away from this page to video of a cat suckling a monkey, I wanted to also talk a little about my version of human connectivity. I want to explain the way I use Facebook, social media and my smartphone.

Reading my other blog posts, you'd be quite right in assuming I'm a feminist - and that as time goes on, I just cannot avoid applying this filter to a great many of the things I come across in the media. I have used Facebook to effectively seek out and create a safe feminist space for myself, where most of the pages I'm subscribed to actually populate my news feed. I see bits and pieces of friend's posts, but my constant interaction with feminist Facebook pages means that those clever algorithms have identified my viewing preferences.

Social media means that people all over the world are able to have a voice. Granted, not all people. Mainly people with internet, but there are still minorities among those people. People that can't speak up, for any number of reasons. People who are survivors of sexual abuse, who can find safe online anonymous communities to get support on their terms. People who have awful experiences on the daily with street harassment. People who have lost loved ones. People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, questioning, trans*, intersexual or asexual can find whole communities to which they are able to belong. 

If life is really tough, sometimes online friends might be the only ones you feel like you have. Sadly, there is a reality of online bullying I acknowledge as something I have been fortunate to avoid. I know it happens, but I still have to insist it's the people, not the smartphones. Like in life, you can open yourself up to some things while being able to close yourself off to others.

I'm getting an incredible education. I'm interacting with and supporting people who have suffered awful things, I'm cheering on the achievements of minorities working so hard to just live in the world and be ok with it. These are people I have not met, who can read and feel the love I send across the world from my HUMBLE SMARTPHONE, and that makes me feel so happy and connected. It makes my online presence meaningful in a way that is significant to me.

So fuck this "Look Up" shit. If you watched Gary Turk's spoken word piece and it made you want to change something in your life, by all means, you go Glen Coco. But don't believe for a second that it's your smartphone, or Facebook, or any social media that is to blame. It's up to you. It's your choice. You're the one that has to look at yourself in the mirror and live your life. If you want to take a selfie while you're looking, more power to ya.


  1. Wonderful. I wish to be in contact with you in there future fellow human.

  2. Brilliant! I completely agree :). Social media, smartphones, Facebook are all tools and like all things in life it can be used for both good and bad depending on the user.
    Btw, I couldn't help but laugh when I read 'you go Glen Coco' :D.