Saturday, December 15, 2018

One for the Books

OK, so let me quickly give you the background to the very amusing stuff you're about to read.

For many years, the International Herald Tribune, which is now known as the International New York Times, ran a column called "Meanwhile." "Meanwhile" was awesome. It was just, like, this little space in the Opinion pages for amorphous-like think-pieces. I had always wanted to write a "Meanwhile" column, and in 2014 finally got an idea for one. However, when I went to pitch the piece I had written, I found out that the "Meanwhile" column had been scrapped. (The decision to end the column had been made when the "International Herald Tribune" was rebranded as the  "International New York Times.")

OK, I thought at the time, that's quite the setback. However, I still wanted to get the piece published. After all, the topic that I had written about was universal: my piece was about cell phones and all the things we miss out on in real life when we're staring down at our screens. It was good stuff. So I figured I'd try a different tack. I thought I'd try pitching the piece as an Op-Ed. Granted, the piece wasn't perfect as an Op-Ed -- it was perfect as a "Meanhile"! -- but I tried.

And I didn't succeed. After being turned down by, like, Op-Ed editors from, like, 40 newspapers, I reached out in a personal email to an editor for the New York Times' Op-Ed pages, writing her something of an impassioned pitch letter. Never got a response. But, hey, Hail Mary passes usually aren't successful, either.  

Anyway, below is the impassioned letter than I wrote to this Times editor, Trish Hall. (Trish, if you're reading this: Why? Why, Trish? Why didn't you ever write back? I'm joking.) But this letter I wrote her is quite "interesting," and all the more so now that a lot of time has passed since my originally having penned it. The actual manuscript that I was pitching is below the letter. Enjoy.


Dear Ms. Hall, 

Hang on -- I'm going for broke. 

Though I would usually just tip my hat and be on my way after submitting a manuscript to and receiving no response, the piece I recently turned in is so in line with the type of content that you said the Times’s Op-Ed editors search for, I had to give it one final shot. 

So here’s the pitch:

You have a smartphone, right? So do I. After all these years, I recently got my first one. And I was a quick convert. I enjoyed the ability to look up words, write emails or check Twitter from wherever I was.

But after a few weeks, I noticed that when I was using the device, I was missing out on things, both large and small, occurring in the immediate present: making eyes with a pretty girl on the subway, the sound of children laughing in the park, a crane flying over a pond -- an oncoming car!

Was I the only one missing out on so much, I wondered? I surveyed many of my friends and acquaintances to find out. And guess what? Nearly all of them also said that their smartphones seriously made them miss out on the here and now. And the specific examples they cited were eye-opening. 

So I decided to write an opinion piece (roughly 1,200 words) on just what it is that we smartphone users are missing out on when our eyes are glued to those little screens. (Much, it seems. One survey participant told me she feels that her phone preoccupation often makes her miss out on connecting with her 2-year-old child.) 

And what lends a greater sense of urgency to my piece is the fact that in late September, about 10 passengers in a San Francisco municipal tramcar were so absorbed in their smartphones and other gadgets that they failed to notice that a man in their midst, a fellow passenger, had brazenly brought a .45-caliber pistol into open view about five times. The man wound up shooting to death one of those passengers seconds after that passenger and he disembarked. Police say the act was random. This story is referenced in my piece. 

Ms. Hall, we’ve heard about the dangers of texting while driving and how rude it is to check your email at the dinner table. But what about *all* that we’re missing out on when we’re absorbed in our smartphones?

In your piece demystifying the Op-Ed process, I noted that you said that the opinion pages editors want to hear “personal perspectives on universal maters,” that they want to hear “things that no one else seems to be saying.” 

Here’s one. I think it works. Whaddaya say? 

All my best, 

Chad Smith

P.S. Some info about me: I’m a freelance reporter with a master’s degree in journalism from N.Y.U. My work has appeared in, among other publications, the New York Daily News and the New York Times (“A Closer Look at the Art, Until ‘Beep!’” July 9, 2010, N.Y. / Region). I recently moved to Germany, but prior to that, I worked for two and a half years as a general assignment reporter at a small -- yet bustling -- daily newspaper in Pennsylvania called the Pocono Record.


So I finally did it. I finally got a smartphone. After all those years of holding out. After my 71-year-old mother got one and my friend’s 7-year-old son did, too. After all those years of people saying to me, “But you’re a journalist. Isn’t a smartphone a crucial tool for a journalist?”

I had held tight to the belief during those smartphone-less years that the devices eroded meaningful relationships. And besides, mostly everything available on a smartphone was available to me anyway -- on a desktop computer.

But then things happen. Plans change; people change. In my case, I moved. And when it came time to buy a new mobile phone, it actually paid for me to get the smartphone.

And it was very interesting at first. I must say I was a quick convert. I live in Germany; my family lives in the United States. So this newfound ability to send my relatives a “selfie” from the Hamburg port or write an email to my American friends as I waited for the U-Bahn was great. As was my being able to look up foreign words on the spot or read the news as a friend shopped for clothes. How about scrolling through breathtaking pics of the Grand Canyon that my mom took in Arizona as I waited in line to buy groceries. It was incredible.

But then, a few weeks into owning the phone, I started to notice something. I was in the subway waiting for a train and I had shared a nice glance with a young lady standing next to me on the platform. She chose to enter the car I entered. Once seated, though, I immediately began looking at my phone. When I looked up a few minutes later and glanced in her direction, she pursed her lips and quickly looked away from me. She didn’t even look my way when she exited the train. Had I just missed out on an opportunity to flirt -- surely one of life’s greatest joys -- because I was pecking away at my keypad? What else was I missing out on? I learned several days later when I was walking in a fashionable Hamburg neighborhood scrolling my Twitter feed and failed to notice that a member of perhaps Germany’s most famous rock group, Die Aerzte, had just strolled by me.

There were even some points when paying attention to the smartphone jeopardized my safety, like when I was sitting in a car cropping a photo on the device and neglected to notice that the driver of the car, who was distracted by another passenger, was swerving as he was entering an autobahn at 70 mph. Mostly, though, I noticed that my smartphone was leading to my missing out on important instances and events in my real life. And so I thought, "Is it just me who’s feeling this way?" I decided to take an informal survey of my 20- and 30-something-year-old friends and acquaintances in the U.S. and Europe to see if they felt the same way. Turns out, they do.

Amelie Krueger, 27, a tax consultant from Hamburg, for example, says she listens to music on her iPhone almost everywhere she travels. Thus, she says, “I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the sounds outside. I’m not hearing people laugh, children, birds....”

Toby Sabatine, 36, a healthcare worker from Pennsylvania, said that even though he is an avid hiker, he often finds himself in the woods “Facebooking instead of enjoying nature.” 

Advertising agent Dawn Friedman, 28, of Virginia, said that "at least half of the people" at a Nine Inch Nails Concert she recently attended "were viewing the show through their phones because they couldn’t just watch it; they had to record it, too!”  

And certainly the consequences of being perpetually wrapped up in the ever-pinging, ever-vibrating, all-purpose devices can run much deeper. 

Vivian Martinez, 32, a nurse from New York, said that the separation she and her fiance recently underwent was due largely in part to smartphones. “We were so glued to our phones -- whether we were on email, Facebook or any other social networking site -- that the intimacy we once shared was compromised.”

Beth Cenci, 31, a social worker from New York, said that constantly having her smartphone by her side “can sometimes lead to me missing out on connecting with my 2-year-old son, Nicholas. Sometimes, when I am tired or bored or just not fully there, I pull out the phone to mindlessly scroll Facebook and look at things that I just don't really care about, things that have no real meaning in my life. The problem is, the thing I care about most is sitting right in front of me and definitely needs my attention more than the phone. I do not neglect or ignore him...but maybe instead of looking at Facebook or playing Words with Friends, I could ask him to get another book or help him build the block tower he is working on.”

Understandably, there is often some guilt associated with one’s allowing oneself to be stolen from the present by a nifty little gadget. (I personally feel bad when I’m at a party and I stay a few minutes longer in the bathroom to read my Twitter feed.) But there are clear reasons why these high-tech devices are so good at capturing our complete attention. 

“It's not like reading a book or reading a magazine or even watching television," Los Angeles-based behavioral health expert Rob Weiss, who studies the effect of technology on society, was recently quoted saying. "Today's devices require a constant stream of interaction, and that requires much more brainpower than passive watching or listening.”

And nowhere is the point that smartphones are deeply hampering our ability to enjoy and even function in the present better illustrated than in a piece of news, which came out of San Francisco on Sept. 23. 

Authorities say that riders of a municipal tram were so engrossed in their smartphones and tablets that they failed to notice that a male passenger in their midst was brazenly brandishing a .45-caliber pistol. The armed passenger actually brought his weapon into open view three or four times during the tram ride, but no one noticed -- not even when he pointed the weapon across the aisle or when he wiped his nose with it. Only after he shot dead a 20-year-old man who had also been riding in the same car just after both men disembarked did anyone notice a problem. Police say the killing was random. 

And so, I guess it’s fair to ask now, what does this all mean? That smartphones are “going to be the end of us,” as one participant in my survey told me? Are we all going to turn into zombies, living in uber digitized societies where no real social cohesion or allegiance exists? I don't think so. Traditional human connections are still strong. 

But I must say, I now think twice before answering a ping on my phone. Sure, I may be missing out on something. But I also may be missing out on something. 

No comments: