I realized the other day, in the middle of a conversation with someone, that – for just a moment – I had stopped thinking of them as a human being, and started thinking of them as the thing that stood between me and some quality time with my iPad.
(If you were talking to me in the past few days, and wondering if you're the person in question, let me assure you that you weren't. It was someone else. Really.)
And, you know, that happens. At parties, some of us catch ourselves looking over the shoulder of the person we're talking to, in case there's someone we actually want to talk with nearby. A friend could be pouring their hearts out to us, and a stray anxiety could drift up from our subconscious long enough to distract us. Even when we give someone our full attention, we're rehearsing what to say next or wondering how they're reacting to what we just said.
All of which is to say, let's cut devices a little slack. They have the reputation of sucking our attention away from other people, but it's not like there isn't plenty of competition for that attention already, devices or no devices. Hell, the Cro-Magnon probably had that problem. ("Ogg stalk mammoth for hours. Then mammoth turn and look at Ogg, and - hey! You not listening to Ogg!")
And one of the nice things about a connected device is that it often connects us to others who aren't in the room. There's a terrific Ze Frank TED Talk where he projects a photo of a woman looking down at her iPhone and smiling. (You'll find it around 6:25.) While this is the stereotypical image of someone zoning out of the real world, he points out that "life is being lived there, somewhere up in that weird, dense network."
That said, it's still possible to be a thoughtless jerk about these things, and I'm living proof. We're still working out the etiquette and sifting through conflicting protocols. And as with nearly everything that really matters, it comes down to human connection.
Or high-velocity connections between pigs and angry birds. Those are fun, too.