Several years ago, an Enterprise employee will tell you, he and his wife set off for a day trip on Martha’s Vineyard via the Steamship Authority.
They went to catch the Steamship shuttle from the Palmer Avenue lot in Falmouth, where they met a young Vineyard musician and his girlfriend. He was carrying a guitar; they were heading back to the island after a trip to Maine.
The four boarded the big white bus and sat across from each other. As the bus made its way down Woods Hole Road to the ferry terminal, the married couple and the young man talked about all kinds of things, including music, Maine and the Vineyard.
As for the girlfriend, at no point did she raise her eyes from her smartphone.
She didn’t participate in the conversation, either.
The memory of that shuttle bus ride, the Enterprise employee said, came back to him as he read about Governor Charles D. Baker Jr.’s commencement address earlier this month at Upper Cape Tech in Bourne.
The governor gave some good basic advice: make good decisions, try new things while keeping the former piece of advice in mind, and stretch yourself.
It was the kind of advice no doubt replicated in thousands of commencement addresses this spring across the United States.
Then Gov. Baker stepped outside the box with one more thing.
“…And for crying out loud,” he said, “put down your phone.”
That people, and younger people in particular, are obsessed with their smartphones in particular, and with social media in general, is nothing new. Witness the aforementioned shuttle bus trip, now several years old.
What is new, in the arc of the 21st century, is a growing sense that this obsession is not a good thing.
Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Arthur C. Brooks notes that US Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) has argued that tech giants such as Facebook are dangerous for us as people.
On May 15, in his first speech in the Senate, the senator said that the giants are “creating a society increasingly defined not by the genuine and personal love of family and church, but by the cold and judgmental world of social media.”
Gov. Baker made a similar point in his address to the Upper Cape Tech grads.
The friends and families of the graduates, he said, connect with them on the most fundamental level: by their shared humanity.
“Believe it or not, your phone has no humanity: it is a tool, plain and simple,” the governor said. “It’s not your friend, it’s not your family, and it cannot and does not love you.”
He went on to describe social media as “the nonsense that comes when you separate real-life consequences from actions and consequences. It enables anger and bravado, much of which is ill-informed or deliberately deceitful.”
A word in defense of both smartphones and social media: both are tools that can be helpful and can bring about positive outcomes.
Accessing a world of information and communication from a small hand-held device, if now routine, remains a powerful enabler in the best sense of the world.
And social media can connect us with others in a way that enhances human connections and actively right wrongs such as police brutality.
The key concept is that smartphones and social media are tools, rather than worlds in which to immerse yourself.
It’s gotten to the point that colleges have had to start offering pointers to students who literally have trouble conversing with other people.
At least one internet provider, meanwhile, is marketing a tool that temporarily snuffs the WiFi signal in a home, as a way to allow families to have an uninterrupted meal together.
Perhaps we are just in the over-exuberance of a new technology. In his Post column, Arthur Brooks notes that similar fears were expressed about the telephone, on which some people used to talk for hours, even though it was plugged into the wall.
“What changed with the telephone?” he asks. “We made progress by learning how to use the technology beneficially. As a rule, today we are the master of the traditional telephone, not the servant.”
Still, Gov. Baker is right to sound the alarm when it comes to smartphones and social media. He gave the Upper Cape Tech grads—and by extension, the rest of us—wisdom not just for the future, but for the here and now.
So, for crying out loud, put down your phone.