Let’s Ignore Each Other Together

When wearables solve the wrong problem

by Leigh Alexander


Recently I was out to dinner with a big group of colleagues, chatting while we waited to be seated in a restaurant. I didn’t notice the sudden lull that had come over the group until someone commented, “So we’re all doing this, huh?”

Most of us were looking at our phones. And resigned in the act, too — no pretense of apology, no genuine sense that it was inappropriate or impolite. Once acknowledged, more people took phones out, and we all began concentrating on them in earnest rather than guiltily, enjoying the permission to indulge in the few minutes of relief we all knew we all wanted.

Despite the finger-wagging modern etiquette pieces, the obligation to provide your full attention to any one person or thing for a sustained period of time is becoming more difficult to meet. The phone, and the constellation of diversions that live inside it — emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Timehop, Google Hangouts, all of which can sprout badges of fire-red notifications demanding to be addressed — are just too compelling.

In the midst of that important pitch meeting, or your friend’s much-needed catch-up night, an insectoid urge burrows its way into your wrist or temple, triggering an almost animal reflex.

No matter what else is happening, suddenly you’re thinking about the phone. Don’t reach for the phone, you scold yourself automatically, fixing your gaze with effort on the tear-filled eyes of the person who is telling you something important about their life. And then you feel deservedly awful about yourself. What on earth could be happening in your phone that is more important than this? Something must be wrong with you.

A recent piece of wearable tech called Ringly promises to help, like some power gem from a superhero flick. The decidedly fashionable $185 gemstone ring, which comes in “wine bar,” “daydream,” and other semi-precious styles, has an accompanying app, and can be set to vibrate gently only when some urgent communication, chosen by the wearer, arrives. You can set it to buzz your finger if your kid’s school calls, or your most favored client, or your parent’s care worker. Instead of checking your device, if anything really important, really interruption-worthy happens, your ring will tell you.

I have as much of an affinity for large signature rings as I do about muttering “sorry” insincerely while thumbing my iPhone screen in the company of friends and then feeling like a bad person, so I pined for a Ringly immediately (the blunt “I Want One” button on the website is a fitting call to action for the target market’s anticipated urge — they should add the word “Now”). After the impulse passed, though, I decided something: The device misunderstands, perhaps willfully, the very problem it is intended to solve. Does anyone still believe that the fear of missing an important call or work email is what keeps us tethered to our devices in the midst of other engagements?

Are we all daily laboring under the constant worry that some dire emergency will occur and we’ll miss it, immersed in the mundane engagements of fleshly life? That if only we could release the clenched terror of missing that one text, we would live blissful, bejeweled lives “in the moment?”

There are two reasons we live the way we do: Because we want to, and because we can’t help ourselves. Most of the time, the person checking her phone constantly isn’t actually waiting for that call to come in. She’s making sure there isn’t something more interesting going on, refreshing for the half-formed hope that something more entertaining than the present moment might crystallize in the idle cloud.

In the FOMO age, we’re not afraid of missing something important. We’re afraid of missing something that we haven’t even imagined yet.

Lozenging these possibilities in a controlled environment is soothing in its own way. Any comment or statement you post, any reply you type in your idle time is conversation on your own terms, a kind of relieving stillness when you’re around a noisy brunch table feeling unsure whether you really like these people after all, or whether you are getting demonstrably worse at in-person interactions because you have one thumb on social media most of the time.

The other day I pretended to be in the midst of a “situation.” I had, I said, a flurry of important work emails. This was so that I could pull out my phone and be spared from a boring conversation. I lied through my teeth to a nice person so I could get away with zoning out in front of my phone instead of finding a way to clue him in to the fact that we had come to the natural end of our gentle conversational meadow. And as he stood there patiently, I did read my email, and check Facebook and Twitter, and answer a message, and idly scroll-pop Facebook and Twitter again — but it wasn’t because I thought something important might actually be there. There wasn’t even someone I’d rather be talking to, in particular. The phone gave me somewhere I “had to” go. It erected a rectangular wall of light to hide behind. Misting our attention across the numerous empty, tactile diversions available on a smartphone is socially isolating, but there’s a secret relief in that isolation.

When out to eat, notice how groups tend toward their phones simultaneously at natural lulls in the service — as if they were indulging an actual palate cleanser.

The aperitif when you’re seated, the break after the entree. It is work, of a kind, to negotiate the silence that often descends while everyone gorges on food, waiting for the check, perhaps anxious to go somewhere else afterward. The escape of habitual, private stimulation brings a sort of secret relief. By that point, everyone tacitly understands. It gives everyone a welcome reprieve from feeling rude. Communal forgiveness, communal isolation after eating. Like saying grace in reverse.

We are crawling ever closer to a world where we’re allowed to admit to one another we don’t really want to put our phones away, not for the whole time. Sporting a Ringly would be like wearing a big, faceted moonstone of denial, superficial as the gems themselves: You’ve got all my attention, darling, and you know, because I’ve brought my wearable tech.

There are, of course, a few kinds of non-emergencies that can make one hyper-attuned to incoming transmissions — anyone who’s ever been dating or really-really liked someone knows what it’s like: Did your phone buzz? No, someone just kicked the table. That time? No, that was Kevin’s phone. Maybe you should just check to make sure it’s not on silent. It’s not on silent.

Tellingly, one proposed use of Ringly is “when you’re waiting for him to text.” Imagine alleviating your dating anxiety with a giant moonstone ring. A beautiful, expensive ring devoted to immediately informing heterosexual single women who like flashy jewelry that “he” has texted. Could you sync Ringly with Tinder, so that you’re not always that person overtly checking Tinder at the bar? “Our core belief is that technology can be integrated more discreetly into our lives,” croons Ringly’s FAQ. Could a knuckle-crushing vibrating gem be a more discreet way to Tinder?

Imagine, you and your pals, all out dancing, all wearing these gems of devotion to waiting for “him” to text. Mine hasn’t buzzed yet, you complain. Are you sure it’s working, someone else says. It’s been like three hours. Maybe it’s not working. Maybe you don’t get service in here. You should check your phone and make sure it’s working. Everyone checks their phone.

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