An Appeal to Forget Your Smartphone

They show us how to get around a city and where to eat. They tell us how many feet are in a kilometer and which berry has the most fiber (it’s raspberries by the way). They give us updates on everything from the presidential race to what a co-worker is watching tonight. They advise us on what to do about a rash and they entertain us when we have to actually wait in line to talk to actual people.

I am not hippie nor am I going Amish. I’m not a curmudgeon that preaches about going back to the ‘good ole days’ (I’m only 31). I do however want to talk about these fantastic devices that most of us carry around every day. A device so commonplace, using it while on a first date is not only excusable but even constructively beneficial. Yet, just 10 years ago, not a single person on the planet took out their smartphone while eating dinner with friends or family.

concert_phones

The modern day smartphone is a portal into the vast amount of knowledge that makes up the physical world. The benefits are profound and penetrate deeply throughout our society. With its power in our hands and pockets, we can access nearly anything, anywhere, anytime we want. A quick view of the streets of Barcelona or the inside of that new downtown bar; both are just a few clicks away. It is the digital pocket knife that enables us to shave time off of our tasks and cut in line at our favorite Starbucks. But are they screwing us over at the same time?

 

In ways I think they are. We find ourselves splitting our attention between those right next to us and others elsewhere at the same time. We navigate cities by looking down at a screen instead of the sites around us. We ignore our neighbors when we find ourselves together on a bus, subway or plane, using our phones as a scapegoat to avoid any human interaction. Our children grow up watching their parents stay glued to a screen and think it is normal. Sometimes, frighteningly young kids are given these devices as a way to control them. Just think, an entire generation raised and taught on an iPad!

asian ipad

More than anything I want to stress the level of addiction that goes along with mobile devices. Strong but in such a covert way that many people do not even consider it. Personally, I am attached to my smartphone. 2013 was when I got my first (I was late to the game) and I felt it change me; physically and mentally. My time became so easily filled by this new device. It became automatic, pulling it out at even the slightest curiosity or even just to pass time. I vaguely remember confessing to my brother how crazy the change was.

I found myself staring at it until I became sleepy. Then, checking my notifications before my eyes were even fully open. It would help me decide what to do about lunch. I would refute a movie my girlfriend picked out based on reviews I read on a website. It began making daily recommendations for my news articles, books, games, bed sheets and bike parts. Sometimes it seemed to be dictating my entire life. Throughout the day I would pull it out just to see if something new had happened. No sound or vibration; just an itch to check. I would tap on a blank screen from muscle memory alone. Does any of this sound familiar?

Dating

The reason the smartphone is so successful is due to the immediate and ‘smart’ satisfaction it doles out; it’s ability to do this is constant. It’s easy and convenient and it appeals to our basic needs and desires. It also meets our vulnerabilities. We don’t complain. But when I step back and look at the cultural ‘us’, sometimes I fear that we use these devices to replace our real life companions and maybe even our real life brains. Then when you consider that large corporations can control and filter what you see, the evolution of the mobile device could potentially trend into sinister realms.

I’m not really saying to abandon technology altogether. I’m not really saying to take a step backwards at all. More of a step sideways. To deny its continued existence is akin to a virtual level of self-exile. But that is exactly what the smartphone world is: virtual. It is a window from the physical world into the virtual. The transition of the smartphone into our daily culture has happened so fast that I think many of us have not created a productive awareness to its existence. It is this awareness and respect that I think can help to create a sustainable relationship with this new technology.

The newest generation of humans, born at the turn of the century and beyond, will only know a life with unlimited access to this virtual world.

Yes, widespread use of the internet began decades ago, but only relatively recently have we been able to carry the internet with us. And that is why it is important to take a step away and gain some perspective on where this fits in. Newer generations will not truly understand what life is like without the instant gratification the internet lends us. It would be doing them a great disservice to not teach them that perspective. As these worlds bleed together, like they already have, it becomes more critical to consider our relationship between them.

Between the virtual world and the physical world lies the modern human being.  This fact must always be kept in perspective as technological advancements continue to infiltrate our daily lives. I don’t want to get too deep into this consideration, as it goes well beyond the scope of my purpose, and instead ask you to think about how it affects your own life.

While the virtual is instrumental to the advancement of our civilization, the physical is essential in our ability to sustain it.

So I want to challenge those of you reading this that fit the archetype of the daily smartphone-wielding citizen. I understand that some of us severely depend on it for work or school. We need it to check our email or take a math quiz; pay our bills or purchase a Christmas gift. But this is the dependence that I want to illuminate. Find a day, any day, where your device stays at home. I don’t mean everyday. I don’t even mean once a week. Get the most pressing things done and then forget it. Walk through the world and notice how often that itch to use it comes out; how often you seem dependent on it. Then, notice how you get by without it.

In doing this, try to create an awareness on what happens. The goal is not to learn to live without your smartphone, but to learn how to live with it. There are so many great things right around us and it’s easy to forget that when we are seduced by these devices. Realizing what it is good for and what it is not can be easier to perceive when we take an occasional step back.

“We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.”

-Sherry Turkle from Alone Together

For great tips, check out this blog.

Vandalism vs Art

The sharpie marks on the bathroom stall walls. A clever phrase scrawled on a overpass as you drive by. A colorful train’s freight car that breaks the drab desert background with its large print graffiti. An unexpected mural on an unexpected wall.

I saw this everyday on my morning commute when I lived in Houston. Most locals knew it if you described it.
I saw this everyday on my morning commute when I lived in Houston. Most locals knew it if you described it.

Call it art. Call it graffiti. Call it self-expression or maybe just vandalism. Street art comes in all forms and is considered differently depending on the audience. While there are definite differences between their motivations and sources, all the forms of public artistic expression have one goal in common: to be seen.

It doesn’t have to be quality work to be able to accomplish this goal, but the good work can stop you for a moment. And if it does, causing you to think any thought that you wouldn’t have initially, then it goes a step further: communicating. Whatever the image or phrase is, it speaks to you. Add that to the fact of being in a public setting and multiply by the times it happens in a day and you have a very cost effective and efficient way of spreading ideas to the masses.

Does this make all forms of public expression, art? Or is it just the curated mural and not the tagged billboard? If it must be segregated and categorized, who is to decide?

Many of those decisions are made by the law, and while this is a major contributing factor to the way a culture perceives self expression, it isn’t the determining factor. Some is done in the face of resistance or simply because of it. On the other side, people get angry about graffiti and only see it as a costly problem to clean up. A striking image or thoughtful message may do all the things a famous painting in the Louvre may do, but a government can deem it vandalism, lumping it into one category. In general, this is because of property rights. Painting or writing on walls without the owner’s permission, impressive as it may be, is still stepping over someone’s freedom. Now, the equality of freedom between people is up for debate

Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn, New York

In fact, one of the key driving factors of graffiti is that of feeling alienation and disconnected to the community. The appeal for many young people who feel marginalized or ignored is that graffiti is an easily accessible method of communication that slips by the grip of the law. It’s also a statement against it. If the graffiti artist does not feel a sense of pride or a connection to their local urban environment, then graffiti is a powerful tool that can help create that feeling.

Some suggest however that illegal graffiti can actually be good for an urban environment. Cities known for their quality street art become a destination for what some call graffiti tourism. People come from around the world to visit well known sites. 5pointz in New York is a warehouse where graffiti was encouraged and allowed by the owner for decades. Internationally praised artists would travel there to add to this publicly curated brick canvas. But in the end, ownership was changed and there was a conflict of interest and the warehouse was demolished to make way for a high rise condominium. This erased decades of local urban art history and angered many but in the end was simply seen as illegal graffiti to those with the power.

5ponitz - a graffiti haven that was demolished in November 2014
5ponitz – a graffiti haven that was demolished in November 2014

This all has to make you wonder. At the core of these conflicts, is there value in street art? What makes self expression art anyway? Or simply, what is Art?

The act of expressing one’s self by scrawling on walls has been around longer than written history. To try and pinpoint the exact purpose and meaning of art would involve too many sweeping generalizations. Sometimes art is a celebration of humanity, expressing its feelings through the material and leaving the viewer to interpret its meaning. Other times it is a critique on current affairs; dealing with anything from politics to racial injustice to welfare inequality. Maybe it just wants to make you smile. Maybe it wants to illicit darker feelings. Art came sometimes be an outcome of rebellion and become a symbol of freedom.

A section of the Berlin Wall still standing
A section of the Berlin Wall still standing

Ultimately, art is subjective. To try and break down its meaning involves dealing with many sources and opinions not held by your own. What is considered art by some will always be countered by those who do not, or at the very least, those who consider it bad art. On top of that, sometimes something will only be considered art by the passage of time through changing perspectives and circumstances.

This consideration is critical when talking about street art as it does not censor and filter itself behind private closed doors and museum entrance fees. Since street art is meant to be seen by anyone and everyone, this leaves it subject to the praise and condemnation of the public. And this is where things get tricky.

From here, I am going to refer to any form of self expression in a public setting as street art. Let’s explore the world of public Street Art and see two extremes.

Hello My Name Is Awsum - Naomi Haverland
Hello My Name Is Awsum –  a mural by Naomi Haverland

Let’s say you are walking down 16th Street Mall and head west down California towards the Convention Center. You make it past the RTD light rail station and you start to see the Big Blue Bear in the distance. As you get closer to 15th Street, you turn around just for an instance and catch a blob of color in your peripheral vision. You turn around and see Naomi Haverland’s mural on the side of a building. You admire its color and its free spirit. That feeling translates to the parking lot it lords over bringing a sense of intimacy to an otherwise forgettable setting.

In another instance, you are walking home from a friend’s place and it is quite cold outside. It had unexpectedly snowed while you were inside and you were not prepared with a warm jacket  To cut down your walk by a minute, you cut through an alley. Down the length, blue and green dumpsters cut through the white snow with bright high-contrast graffiti which often made a leap onto nearby walls. This changing urban canvas kept your mind busy with thoughts other than your cold body.

IMG_20150302_170234399_HDR

These are obviously two extremes, but they exemplify all the traits of those extremes.

Graffiti:

  • considered vandalism and illegal
  • not owned by anyone
  • done by anyone willing to try
  • original purpose is to claim territory
  • meant to be temporary

Mural:

  • considered “art” is is commissioned
  • owned by property owner with a licence to the artist
  • usually done by experienced artists
  • purpose is to communicate to the public
  • meant to be semi-permanent

In the end, it is the public that decides what is art. You. Your opinion matters when in reference to the environment you live in. It is a sort of artistic democracy where the art speaks the mind of the public and the public decides if it agrees. Many of the great street artists were discovered this way and work that was previously done illegally, is now curated and sometimes sought after. Other street artist prefer to stay out of the spotlight and continue to do their craft by illegal means.

Next time you see a bathroom mural or a tagged bus, think about the person who made it and what was trying to be said. Not all graffiti is bad and definitely not all of it is good. But for a great work of art to be made, a lot of work has to be done before it exists.

Street Art in London
Street Art in London

Sources:

http://opticosdesign.com/the-power-of-public-art-murals/

http://www.fastcodesign.com/3022524/can-graffiti-be-good-for-cities#5

http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2014/10/vanguard-or-vandalism-graffiti-writers-and-street-artists-speak/

https://morganmushroomwrites.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/graffiti-deviance-and-public-art/

http://www.cleanlink.com/cp/article/Graffiti-Psychology-Why-Vandals-Strike–1131

http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/banksy-artwork-on-trailer-home-sells-for-848k-at-paris-auction-1.3095525