Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Is the smartphone just a social crutch?

It’s a social crutch. A distraction that feeds our endemic ADD, and an insidious device that erodes our capacity to connect with the people who really matter.

Or it’s a godsend for the shy, a way for the soft-spoken to have their voices heard; a tool that allows us to connect with others in meaningful ways whether we’re standing in a queue or watching TV.

And maybe, just maybe, it’s both.

What are smartphones doing to our social lives anyway, to our capacity to connect with others – even our very sense of self? The prevailing wisdom, in many cases, is that smartphones are bad for us, that friendships formed online are of a lesser order than friendships “in real life”, and that our constant connection through the devices we keep at our side and in our hands is leading to a lack of the very thing so many of us yearn for.

Nearly two weeks ago I chatted to Eusebius McKaiser on Talk at 9 about the use of smartphones in social settings after he spotted this piece by Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal. If texting at the table was always considered beyond the pale, what about tweeting, BBMing and checking in on Foursquare? (A friend tells me she’s the mayor of somebody’s bedroom — not her own.) It’s reached the point where people are putting their phones out of reach when they get together, as a way to force themselves to pay attention to the other people at the table rather than everyone else outside of the room.

Rosman quotes Bevy Smith, who hosts celebrity dinners from which smartphones are banned:

“Smartphones have become social escorts, Ms. Smith says. ‘When people walk into a room where they don’t know anyone or feel insecure, they reach into their bags and start staring at the screen,’ says Ms. Smith, who is an active after-the-party tweeter.”

Ms Smith is absolutely right, of course. All too often, my phone is a social crutch. I freely admit that; I’ve lost count of how much social awkwardness it has rescued me from. And yet it’s also the most powerful social tool I have, the device that links me most reliably to the social media platforms I have grown to love for their ability to connect me other people, other ideas, other opinions.

It’s my art exhibition that has brought all of these debates to life — because it turns out that art and social media add up to a really good way to connect with others. I’ve spent the past two Saturdays at Velo, and both of them have been a constant stream of people I know both from Twitter and real life, new friends and old.

The 19-year-old poet and his mother, who bought one of my works (the title is “I am that which emerged from the fire”) because it spoke to her, the recently divorced woman who teared up because she realised, looking at my work, that it was OK to say that life is tough. The Australian called Bruce — yes, really — who bought Panic after wandering into the gallery by chance. The toddler for whom I painted a first birthday gift. Novelists, psychologists, editors, clients, friends, family — all of them came along to see the work I’d tweeted about so many times over the months. (In fact, there were times in which my offline conversations interfered with the task of tweeting – because this exhibition is also in many ways a campaign, and needed to be communicated as widely as possible.)

So Twitter, Facebook and my smartphone have been central to the process of creating, sharing and connecting. I may paint with lipstick, but I also photograph my work with my iPhone, upload it to share, and wait for the comments. It was the positive feedback I got from my Twitter followers and Facebook friends which convinced me to take the leap and put my work on show, and it is why I include tweets in my work, because as snatches of Joburg conversation, they make as much sense as eavesdropping on the kugels at the next table at Tasha’s.

red light district
(Some of the texts in this work are tweets courtesy of @Pigspotter and @AkiAnastasiou)

Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor whose work I’ve been citing in my presentations for the past two years, has written that “in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude … we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether”. Turkle is one of the loudest and most prominent intellectuals to call for us to log off and switch to airline mode. The points she makes in that essay are perfectly, even painfully valid. But paradoxically, notes Nathan Jurgenson, “The ease of digital distraction has made us appreciate solitude with a new intensity … never has being disconnected — even if for just a moment — felt so profound.” Whereas in the past, reality was quite simply that (a state of being that nobody besides artists and philosophers found especially noteworthy) now the act of logging off prompts an existential crisis of Sartrean proportions.

But at the same time, all this obsession with disconnecting even as we spend more and more of our lives being connected is turning into what Jurgenson describes as a “fetishization of the offline”. Facebook is real life, he argues, because Facebook depends on real life. It can’t function without it.

There is no real distinction between the digital and the physical, Jorgenson argues, because lived reality involves “the constant interpenetration of the online and offline”. Though I don’t entirely agree with him – while he talks about the flaws in “digital dualism”, he doesn’t touch on how we perform for imagined audiences on social media platforms — it does tie in with my experience as an artist in the age of social media. When I paint, I go into a private space and disappear from view for a while. Radio silence, you can call it. But I always return, because invariably it is the knowledge of the audience out there that drives the creation almost as much as the private compulsion. I write for an audience, and I paint for an audience too.

So the art I create is not divided into the physical and the digital; it is both. There is a constant shifting of energy one to the other, the work created in messy, tactile physicality, then uploaded into the digital realm where, freed from the limitations of the work of art before the age of mechanical reproduction, it can be shared. The photos never quite capture the subtleties of the colours of the physical object, but both the physical and the digital are part of the creative process, and meaning resides in both.

Turkle writes, “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection”. In many ways, she is right. But in my experience, connection can also lead to conversation, which in turn leads to further connection, and creation, connection and then conversation again. Perhaps the most beautiful irony of all of this is that it is thanks to social media and my smartphone that I have had more face to face conversations and connected in meaningful ways with more people over the past three weeks than the past three months, perhaps even the past year.

As I told Eusebius during our conversation (one during which I was supposed to tweet), the issue for me is not one of being surgically attached to a smartphone and the channel it offers to the ceaseless scrolling of status updates and tweets. Rather, it’s often a matter of something as old-fashioned as manners. If I’m in conversation with somebody, I try to give them my attention – not because the physical, offline world is more important than the digital, but because I recognise that they are entitled to it.

No matter how high tech our lives become, it will always be as simple, and as difficult, as that.

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