Let's talk, but not on the phone

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 24, 2013

Let's make a bet. I bet you that you cannot read all the way to the end of this newspaper column without checking your phone screen.

Ready? Go!

What's that? You already lost because you are reading this on your phone? Well, honestly, I am not surprised.

This is sort of the way society is headed. I admit that I am unable to go two minutes without checking if I have a new notification on my phone.

I am perpetually on the lookout for new e-mails, SMS messages, Whatsapp messages, Facebook alerts, breaking news alerts, new tweets and, of course, whether anyone has responded to any of my dozens of requests for lives in Candy Crush. (Speaking of which, excuse me while I take a quick peek at my phone.)

And now with the haze, I feel like I cannot go two minutes without seeing if there is an update to the PSI reading. I'll check it and then I'll quickly announce it to whoever is in the room with me. ("Look, the PSI is at 371!) Yet, thinking about it now, I have no idea why I did that. The PSI number isn't very meaningful to me.

My behaviour does not change according to the PSI. There is nothing I am willing to do at 271 PSI outside that I would stop at 371. Basically, if I need to check the weather in Singapore, it means something has gone wrong.

But I digress. My point is, even when I am not looking at random numbers about air quality, I am still staring at my phone.

I am simply addicted to it.

For the longest time, I assumed this was a passing phase, a minor problem caused by the newness and shininess of my phone. Eventually, I figured I would just get bored with it and return to relating with my fellow humans like a normal well-adjusted polite person.

Instead, I now interact with everyone as if I am a father-to-be expecting a call from the hospital at any minute. I fill all the gaps in conversation by sneaking a peek at my phone, temporarily taking comfort in the warm glow of its high- density, retina display touch screen. Often I fill gaps in conversation with this activity even when there are no gaps.

I have recently noticed that this is rather rude behaviour. Yet, I must stress that my friends, whom I am actively ignoring, have made no effort to reprimand me for this anti-social behaviour. They actually didn't notice; they were all too busy checking their phones.

Hence, I only became really aware of the severity of the problem due to a recent piece of news that I - surprise! - read on my phone.

The story that made the rounds online last week was about Salve Jorge Bar in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The bar owners, presumably upset that people were not socialising with one another at the bar, came up with a beer glass with a phone-shaped notch in its base. They called it the Offline Glass.

The glass would tip over unless you slid your phone into the notch. This meant revellers had to choose between being forced to hold their beer the whole time - which gets in the way of phone use - and using their phone as a coaster.

There are several forces at work here. The first is the use of one addictive substance - alcohol - to lure the addict away from a second addictive substance - Candy Crush.

The second is to disable a device - the phone - by using it for a function it was not originally meant to serve - coaster.

This really alerted me to the depth of the phone addiction problem I have. I mean, what has the world come to that we now have to resort to little tricks and gimmicks to prevent ourselves from ignoring our friends?

Though this is a sad commentary on the state of friendship in the modern world, I think there is a good chance that little gimmicks and tricks might be the only way.

And I think we should start applying the principles of the toppling beer glass in Singapore immediately. It would be a boon for our national cohesion.

I am not, by any means, suggesting that we just start importing those glasses. It probably won't work. Singaporeans are not just addicted to their phones, they are also fiercely protective of it.

Nobody would ever want to risk putting their beautiful phone with its custom Hello Kitty case and mirror finish screen protector under a beer glass. They would worry about the condensation dripping on to it. The poor bar owner will find he is actually selling fewer drinks without any improvement in the number of people staring at their phones.

Also, we do not have a very prevalent bar culture. We need to incorporate it into something everyone needs to use, even non-beer drinkers.

That's why I am now proposing we introduce an offline table.

This is a table that requires phones to be set into its legs in order to stand upright. There would be different models of the table based on how many people are at the table and the different types of phones.

Remove even a single phone from the table and the whole setup goes tumbling over. This table would not just help people socialise by disabling their phones, but it would also encourage teamwork.

Should one member of the dinner party decide to take an urgent call midway through a meal, he would require the cooperation of the rest of his dining partners to hold the table up or dinner ends up on the floor.

And this is just the beginning, I am also coming up with an offline shoe that will prevent people from walking while they look at their phones.

Of course, I know some people will point out this is a lot of trouble just to get people to behave in a social manner.

I am blind to these complaints though. I'm too busy looking at my phone.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 24, 2013

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