Saturday, January 9, 2016


During the Christmas holiday, daughter Anna had a nice, unobtrusive way of taking occasional candid photos of the goings-on. I like this one of me, for a couple of reasons. (One Facebook friend remarked that it would make a good jigsaw puzzle!) But, while taking a second look, it occurred to me that the picture presents a different, rather modern puzzle, which could be titled, “What is he doing?”

It’s not difficult to see that I am holding and looking at my iPhone (ah, the tell-tale Apple logo accomplishes its intended purpose). But what am I doing? This Amazing Techno-Age which we’ve entered allows a surprising number of equally probable guesses, any of which could explain this very photo. I could be:

  •      Reading a book on my Kindle app.
  •      Reading St. Luke’s Christmas story from my Olive Tree Bible app.
  •      Pondering the New York Times crossword on my NY Times Crossword app.
  •      Reading the New York Times.
  •      Pondering my next move in my ongoing Scrabble game with a friend.
  •      Looking up a word on my Oxford English Dictionary app. (Not that I would ever do so to cheat at Scrabble….)
  •      Reading an article from The Guardian in my Safari “Save For Later” feature.
  •      Reading The Atlantic magazine.
  •      Reading the Minneapolis StarTribune.
  •      Catching up on my e-mail.
  •      Checking the recipe I’m using for tonight’s dinner.
  •      Checking the lectionary texts for preaching this coming Sunday.
  •      Looking at the calendar I share with Caryl.
  •      Looking at an incoming phone call to decide if I should answer.
  •      Reading a clever text message from brother-in-law Jeff.
  •      Drifting off, after doing any of the above.

For most of the choices above, if I knew how to do it, I could photo-shop an appropriate image to substitute for the iPhone in my hand (book, Bible, magazine, crossword book, etc.), and the game would be over; in fact, there’d be no game. We wouldn’t be asking, “What’s he doing?” But, since the question remains, we are left to wonder not only what it is I might be doing, but what effect such a protean device has on our minds, our lives, and our relationships.

At one level, the smartphone is just another functional delivery system, giving us access to all of the media, information, and entertainment listed above (and you could probably double the list)—with the added convenience of not having to move across the room to a bookshelf, game table, dictionary stand, or mailbox.

But, on another level, if we are honest, I think we find something off-putting about scenes like this. If we are honest, is not our first impression that the subject (me) is rather wrapped up in himself, oblivious to anyone else who might be in the room, and—if in fact there are others in the room—rude? This photo at least allows for such a reaction in a way that a picture of me reading a book or working a folded-paper crossword puzzle would not.

I don’t have a clear answer to the difference between finding an innocent explanation (he’s reading the Bible), or an offended one (put down the phone, jerk!), but it must have something to do with the mystery of the device—since we don’t know what he’s doing, we’re shut out, and left to assume the worst. This is similar to what social-science experiments have found to explain why an overheard cell-phone conversation in a restaurant or airport lounge is so irritating: In addition to the volume of the speaker (often), we are psychologically off-balance because we only hear one side of the conversation—we’re left hanging.

I make it a practice not to be bent over my iPhone in the presence of our grandkids, but on the rare occasions when I am, I have taken to letting them know that I’m reading the newspaper or a book. And, while I still use the Kindle app for convenience at times (in the doctor’s waiting room, for example), I have gone back to actual books for my general reading, primarily because when Sam and Violet see me reading a book, I want them to see me reading a book, and not staring at a screen. (Plus—I love the books!) In her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” author Sherry Turkle makes the obvious but important point that the most significant element in our kids’ relationship to these devices is what they see demonstrated by the adults in their lives.

So, what am I doing in Anna’s photo? I am on the Apple Music app, searching for—and about to play—a beautiful song about friendship which Jeff sent me from Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s new album. And Anna played some of her songs for me. (We were the only two in the room.) It was a lovely time.

As to photo-shopping: Don’t you think that if I could replace the iPhone in my picture with a floppy leather Bible, it could become a new classic--like that portrait of the old man praying over his supper? I’m going to order up the jigsaw puzzle version.