Smartphones haven’t made sidewalks hazardous, but they have made pedestrians increasingly hazardous to each other. There are the distracted talkers and their bold gestures, which threaten noses and eyes, and there are the moseying texters and their unexpected vectors, which sever mother from child and lover from lover. Until relatively recently, these space carnivores were the scariest thing on urban game paths. But, callous as they might be, they have now been forced to give way to a new pedestrian superpredator: FaceTime walkers.
Lets get this out of the way first: The FaceTime feature on iPhones isn’t inherently annoying; it’s a technological advance that has drastically improved some human interactions. A woman living in Los Angeles can see and hear her family in Vermont through a device the size of her palm, or she can get jealous of the square footage of her friends home in Nashville. What she can’t do is successfully make eye contact through FaceTime while strolling down La Cienaga.
If the conversation you’re having doesn’t require visual imagery, then don’t add it. The point of having both people’s faces onscreen is to add a layer of intimacy to the interaction, so that FaceTime can remedy missing someone or bridge distance.
FaceTime walkers make the medium less special to use and devalue what’s supposed to be a meaningful correspondence. If you’re making plans to FaceTime with someone, put aside the time to be able to do it comfortably so you don’t come off as uninterested. It comes off as being uninterested to the other party who probably made sure they were home to fully catch up. It can also be disorienting watching from the other end because the video’s often super shaky. FaceTiming with someone who’s trying to get somewhere turns out to just be gazing at someone’s chin as random trees and streetlights plunge in and out of frame, which can be distracting to the other person who might be trying to explain something while it looks like a scene from Cloverfield is playing on their screen.
Data allotments and battery life aren’t the only things suffering: FaceTime walker brains are as well. Researchers from Kyoto University recently found that maintaining eye contact while talking overwhelms the brain. They conducted tests with participants playing a word association game in which they had to think of a verb after seeing an object. While facing the computer screen, there was a face. When the face was making eye contact with the subjects, it was harder for them to make associations. Holding the gaze of the face on the screen was roughly as hard as holding eye contact with a friend. The screen was not moving. People weren’t walking past.
FaceTiming splinters pedestrians’ attention in ways that are bad for everyone. And everyone is a lot of people.
Roaming FaceTimers are an auditory nuisance. We don’t need to hear about your rash you got from going to Governors Ball, Barbara, or how your Seamless pad Thai noodle order was 45 minutes late, and you were so hungry that you had to eat some of your roommate’s peanut butter with a spoon and said roommate caught you dipping into her pantry and now wants you to buy her a new jar. Barbara, please take this conversation somewhere private where nobody else can hear about your skin condition or mundane problems. And Barbara, please don’t step on that dog.
We may want to live in a society with fewer taboos, but shouting out intimacies is no way to get to that desirable goal. The way to get there is by respecting each other enough to not shout into each other’s faces, even when that shouting is mediated by an internet connection.
Technology can help us keep in touch with each other and reach out to those that we care about. That’s great, but it becomes a problem if, in doing so, we alienate each other constantly. It’s nice that you like the human on the other end of your FaceTime call, but if you don’t like humanity you’re still going to die alone, probably while crossing the road.
Technology continues to reshape how humans interact with one another, helping people connect with others who may be miles away. New advancements don’t always need to replace old ones like a classic phone call. It’s up to people to be more discerning when new options are made available.