In late August, a YouTube video went up called, "I Forgot My Phone." Wildly successful, it has accumulated over 36 million views and garnered nearly 22,000 comments. I imagine that the general reaction to this video is, "Oh my God. I like, need to stop using my phone all the time." The video, which is well made, is supposed to make the viewer feel guilty, assuming he or she phone binges.
Here's where this video gets it right: people do often overuse their phones, both in social situations, when it can be rude, and in awkward situations, when it serves as a distraction from discomfort.
And here's where it's wrong: in portraying all phone usage in social situations as negative, the video assumes that the alternative to the phone is more wholesome, more polite, or whatever. Let's explore how this video approaches what is a subtle topic from a binary angle. We'll walk through most of the scenes from the short, all of which feature Charlene deGuzman, an actress in Los Angeles:
Scene 1: Charlene in bed with boyfriend/husband/someone. It's the morning, and both presumably just awoke. It could be a very nice and cozy experience, but the damn guy is busy reading something on his phone. Jeez!
Why not? Because if he were reading a book or the newspaper instead of searching on his phone, no one would object to his not focusing intently on cuddling Charlene. Reading the LA Kings recap on the LATimes app is no different than reading it in the LATimes print copy.
Scene 2: Charlene getting ready for a run in the hills. A dorky guy next to her is obnoxiously talking on the phone about some incident with a box getting stuck under a car.
Why? Because talking on your phone in the gorgeous outdoors while getting ready for a run interrupts the serenity of the scene and also makes it difficult for other people to enjoy the outdoors.
Scene 3: Friends are eating a nice meal at a restaurant. Most of them are busy on their phone and not paying attention to each other.
Why? Because when friends get together to eat, they should be focusing on each other and on the food. Not on their phones. That's rude. Go be alone instead of wasting your friends' time.
Scene 4: As a man proposes to his girlfriend on the beach (she said yes!), he's holding his phone in one hand to tape the whole thing.
Why? On the one hand, recording a successful proposal is a fantastic memento. Assuming this couple doesn't divorce or have a miserable marriage, they will cherish the recording. Alternatively, the guy focusing on getting a good shot partially removed him from the moment. While recording his proposal, it was impossible for him to be 100% focused on the scene.
Scene 5: A little girl is sitting on a swingset and, instead of swinging, she's using her phone.
Why? First, why does this girl have an iPhone? It's nuts. If her parents insist on giving her a phone, give her an old flip phone that can call, text, and do nothing else. Elementary, folks! Also, why did she go to a park if she was just going to use her phone instead of swinging? Makes no sense.
Scene 6: Two friends are having some lovely mimosas outdoors on a sunny day. One of them is holding her phone from a birds-eye view to capture the moment.
Why? If she were using a normal camera instead of the phone, would anyone object? If, for most of the experience, she's focusing on capturing the moment rather than experiencing it, that's rude to the friend sitting next to her. But if she spends a few seconds to take a pic, what's wrong with that?
Scene 8: Charlene is out bowling with friends. She knocks down a few pins and walks back to her friends looking for some high-fives. Sadly, they are all distracted by their phones.
Why? When you go bowling with friends, implicit in the outing is that you'll cheer on your friends. You shouldn't just show enthusiasm about your roll. Support your friends too. If you're only going to pay attention when it's your turn, you might as well go bowling alone.
Scene 10: As friends celebrate someone's birthday with a cake, and candles, and everything, they are all recording the moment on their phones (as is the birthday boy).
Why? It's a balance between recording the moment and experiencing the moment. Activities, in this sense, are pies. The more recording you do, the less there is to experience, and vice-versa. It's zero-sum and you have to choose what you value more. If the people recording the birthday are ok with not fully experiencing it, why object?
Scene 11: After a day filled with phone-induced disappointments, Charlene cuddles up in bed with her man and turns off the light. And then the LED glow of the phone comes on because her man is using it...the nerve!
Why? What if he stayed awake later than Charlene to read a book in bed? Anything objectionable about that? No? Case closed.
The subtlety that this video misses is that there are two ways to use a smartphone: as a replacement to a reasonable alternative, and as a distraction from reality. The former is fine, the latter is usually not. If a phone is simply replacing, say, a newspaper, that's a replacement of a reasonable alternative. If, though, a phone is serving as a distraction from your friend's awful bowling performance, that's obnoxious.