Thoughts on ‘Hamilton’ and theatergoing in the age of the smartphone

Last week, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Hamilton live in Pittsburgh.

We had decent enough seats—ten or so rows back in the left-hand orchestra section. While the view was partially obscured (we couldn’t see the elevated balcony at stage right), we were close enough to see the actors’ facial expressions clearly.

We had an amazing time. There’s a reason that Hamilton is a worldwide phenomenon; it’s a remarkable work of art. The show is cleverly self-referential—reprising leitmotifs and coyly paying off its dramatic promises. It’s playfully historical—grounding itself in real events but freely reinterpreting them, too. And it’s strikingly original—showcasing a genre foreign to Broadway, while also paying homage to musical theater’s long history.

However, my biggest takeaway from the show had nothing to do with the onstage performance. I was more fascinated by what happened in the theater during intermission. While Emily ran to the restroom, I sat and watched the crowd.

Here’s the thing: everyone was on their phone. I mean, literally 90% of the audience spent the intermission either staring at their smartphone or cradling it in-hand. There were very few exceptions: the very old (some of whom may prefer not to own a phone) and the very young (i.e., kids who probably can’t wait for their first hand-me-down device).

We’ve gone through an incredible societal transformation in just a decade. Twelve years ago, a Broadway intermission would have felt very different. Sure, a few people might have made a phone call on their flip phone, but nobody could’ve pulled an addictive “everything” device out of their pocket.

What did the 2006 audience do during those twenty-minute breaks? Doubtless, many would’ve buried their noses in the program—perusing the cast bios or the second act’s song list. But many attendees would’ve chatted up a neighbor and reflected together on the show. The hall’s decibel level might’ve been significantly louder—many more voices adding to the cacophony (rather than silenced in rapt attention to their phones). ◾


Putting screen time to better use

More than three-quarters of all Americans own a smartphone. In 2018 those 253 million Americans spent $1,380 and 1,460 hours on their smartphone and other mobile devices. That’s 91 waking days; cumulatively, that adds up to 370 billion waking American hours and $349 billion.

In 2019, here’s what we could do instead.

Paul Greenberg conducts a thought experiment: what would happen if Americans reallocated the time and money spent on smartphones into more productive activities?

This article is a little silly. It shocks us by quantifying our excessive device time, but it ignores inconvenient questions. For example…

  1. What’s included in “other mobile devices”? Tablet computers fall into that category, presumably. What about e-readers? Laptops? My point: some “mobile devices” can be used for more productive and beneficial activities than others (e.g. reading, work).
  2. Why assume that all smartphone use is bad? Even if we were talking about smartphones on their own, it’s unfair to pretend that phones can’t also be used to read or pursue social justice.
  3. Why single out the smartphone? It’s not as if laziness or self-absorption didn’t exist before the iPhone’s release in 2007. Time wasted on our phones in 2018 would’ve been wasted on TV in 1988 or on radio in 1948.

Still, Greenberg has a point. We claim that we’re “too busy” to launch a new project, read more, or exercise. But what about the time spent thumbing through Facebook, playing Clash of Clans, or binging on Netflix? If we could reclaim just one hour each day from mindless smartphone use—then apply it towards nobler ends—where might we be a year from now? ■


An antidote for smartphone “zombie syndrome”?

The mind is no computer, but our consciousness still merges with our phones and tablets as seamlessly as a painter’s hand fuses with her brush or musicians vocalize through their instruments. This fusion can happen, Buddhist teaching holds, because consciousness is formless and adopts the qualities of everything it “touches.” Once we’ve immersed ourselves in our screens, they become our whole reality—and that’s why texting drivers look up with surprise when they rear-end the car in front of them.

Zen Priest Kurt Spellmeyer, explaining why he never replaced his lost phone

For Spellmeyer, smartphones extend our minds—and this poses both an opportunity and a threat. Yes, our devices augment our mental capabilities, enhancing memory and accelerating calculations. But our phones also super-charge our penchant for self-distraction. As he explains,

The nonstop novelty prevents us from uncovering the sources of our suffering. We shuttle from one screen to the next, trying to allay our nagging sense that something’s missing or not right.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve frittered away entire afternoons, mindlessly refreshing Twitter or dipping glumly into app after app. Even though you never quite feel satisfied, you keep thumbing around, semi-consciously. Spellmeyer claims that meditation can quell our appetite for distraction and prevent “screen zombie” syndrome. 

For me, meditation hasn’t totally sapped screens of their allure. I still frequently drift between apps on autopilot. But I have noticed one difference: I’m more aware of losing myself, in the moment. Questions arise, like “Is this making me happier?” and “Will I regret this, later today?”

Sometimes, that’s just enough to interrupt the cycle, and I manage to set the phone down. ■

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Who is the Apple Watch for?

The Apple Watch allows users to keep their phones in their pockets while they’re on the go. But as a remote worker, my phone’s never in my pocket, and I’m never on the go. My iPhone sits on my desk, always within view. I can easily see each new notification as it rolls in. Why would I buy another, smaller screen to duplicate those alerts?

So, the Watch isn’t for telecommuters. That made me think: who else isn’t the Watch for?

  • The Watch isn’t for non-iPhone users. The wearable requires an Apple phone tether to link it to the Internet. If you find the iPhone’s stubborn idiosyncrasies maddening, the Watch is unlikely to sway you to buy into Apple’s ecosystem.
  • The Watch isn’t for the cash-strapped. The cheapest version starts at $350, and a modest stainless steel Watch/band combo will cost you a cool grand. And that’s leaving out the ostentatious gold Edition. Not many can afford a device to distract them from their other $600+ device.
  • The Watch isn’t for those with non-geeky friends. The Watch’s most personal features—heartbeat broadcasts, animated emoticons, tiny sketched messages—only work if you have someone with whom to share them. There just aren’t many Watches in the wild yet—especially among “normals.”
  • The Watch isn’t for those who dislike its aesthetics. Based on photos, the Watch seems just a wee bit too thick to take seriously.

So there are plenty of people who can rule out the current Apple Watch pretty easily. But here’s the thing: it’s striking how little it would take for Apple to market the Watch to a broader audience:

  • Non-iPhone users: If the Apple Watch had its own Internet connection—and didn’t depend on its iPhone big brother—its customer base would likely multiply. Users could adopt the Watch without abandoning Android—even without upgrading from their dumb phones.
  • The cash-strapped: Eventually, the Watch’s price will drop. $350 feels like a luxury item; $200 (for example) flirts with the “splurge” territory.
  • Those without Watch-wearing friends: As adoption slowly ramps up, it will become more likely that you know someone else with an Apple Watch. And, as your family and friends buy their own Watches, you may acquire an acute sense of FOMO.
  • The fashion-conscious. The Watch’s too-thick body must be at the top of Apple’s list. I’d expect a dramatically slimmer Watch within two or three product cycles.

As Apple iterates on the Watch, obstacles to ownership will start to fall. As with the iPad and iPhone, the second and third incarnations promise to be the Watches you’ll really want to own.

Of course, new hardware and software features aren’t enough to overcome my main source of indifference. As long as I work from home, that iPhone remains within easy reach.

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Always absent

Glass, Google’s nascent wearable computing platform, endures its fair share of ridicule. The device looks clunky and awkward, even when embedded in traditional prescription eyewear.

But future versions of Glass will make the technology more attractive. I’m not worried about fashion faux pas; I’m more worried about human presence.

We’re already hyper-distracted. Our smartphones stave off boredom everywhere we go: on the subway, in line, on the toilet. Even when we’re with our loved ones, we can’t resist the temptation to sneak hits from our glowing pocket rectangles. Our propensity to be “present but absent” has led to some ingenious new social rules governing when to ignore your iPhone.

But what happens when you can’t ignore that screen? Google Glass’ heads-up-display rules your peripheral vision. When it’s turned on, your field of view includes a constant stream of Twitter @replies, text messages, and app notifications. With that visual cacophany scrolling by, can you ever really be present with those around you? And if your everyday eyewear accommodates Glass, such that you can’t take it off, don’t you risk normalizing a state of constant distraction? Aren’t you training your brain to crave distraction—to flit from snippet to snippet, from topic to topic? In a culture where literacy continues to erode, doesn’t Google Glass threaten to accelerate the decline of your endangered attention span?

Meanwhile, wearing Google Glass retrains your friends and family, too. Companions can’t tell if you’re really with them or not. They come to resent your spacey, not-quite-focused stare. After all, the dongle hanging from your face serves as a depressing reminder: you don’t find them interesting enough to occupy your full attention.

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iPhone pants

Nestled inside the side pocket of many men’s pants, you’ll find another, more mysterious pouch.

I’m not talking about the (utterly useless) “watch pocket” Levis sews into each pair of jeans. I’ve never found a use for that narrow, skin-tight compartment. Anything you drop in there ain’t coming back out.

No, I’m referring to a shallow half-pocket, completely obscured to the outside observer. It’s sometimes called a “change pocket”—a place to drop your coins so that they don’t rattle around in loose-fitting slacks. As someone who hates carrying change, this does me no good.

Puzzled, I ignored the feature for years—until I had an epiphany. See, one of my pet peeves is the way my iPhone falls on its side inside a typical side pocket. Lying horizontally across my upper thigh, it stretches out my pant leg and just feels doggone uncomfortable.

So, when I realized that my iPhone slides perfectly into this change pocket, I was excited. Whether by coincidence or design, the secret pouch seems custom-designed to hold an iPhone wearing a slim case.

Now, my phone remains perfectly upright inside my pocket, no matter what I’m doing: riding a bike, climbing boulders, or lying in a hammock. Even better, because the pocket is shallow and somewhat loose, it’s easy to drop the iPhone into its pouch, then pull it out on the fly—all one-handed. But the pocket’s just snug enough that the phone never slips out; I don’t have to worry about my overpriced trinket crashing onto the pavement.

At this point, I’d hesitate to buy pants without this “iPhone pocket”. My worst nightmare? REI redesigns my favorite hiking pants, or Apple starts making phablets.

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Mountains cure iPhoneitis.

This video made the rounds this past week. It depicts a twenty-something woman, moving through her day sans smartphone. All around her, tiny glowing screens transfix her friends and family, leaving her to experience real life all alone. It’s an effective commentary on how consumer technology isolates us, even as it connects us virtually.

When we moved to West Virginia last year, we brought our brand new smartphones with us. We soon discovered (with disappointment) just how useless those gadgets are without decent cell service. We couldn’t make a phone call inside any local building. Data coverage was nearly non-existent; Tucker County lagged three generations behind the industry standard, and what connection we had rarely worked. Downloading an email took full minutes; photos were downright impossible.

But, as with many rural “inconveniences”, handicapping our smartphones also had its blessings. When we went out to dinner, we weren’t tempted to steal a peek at Facebook. No unwelcome calls interrupted our pleasant hikes through the mountains. When taking photos, the phone slipped quickly in and out of its pocket—with no long pause to Instagram the moment.

And local culture, we noticed, adapted to fit this technological landscape. Scenes like those from the video above—so common in suburbia—were rare here. Neighbors, we realized, actually met your gaze as they passed on the sidewalk. Some (wonder of wonders!) even smiled and said “Hello.” After years in Boston and D.C., this friendliness felt both strange and welcome. The area’s lackluster cell coverage kept iPhoneitis at bay and preserved Tucker County as a small oasis—a bubble of hospitality and awareness.

That bubble just burst. In recent weeks, AT&T has upgraded its cell service in our little town. It’s not unusual to catch a whiff of 4G here and there. And that’s not all bad; improved wireless will link Tucker County to the wider world, help visitors find their way around, and encourage tech-minded professionals to move here. But even if we appreciate the advantages of ubiquitous connection, we’ve can also mourn what we’ve lost.

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Smartphones: self-sedation, or self-improvement?

Smartphones create escape artists. In social situations, a smartphone offers an always-ready retreat from the stressful improvisation of face-to-face conversation. In lonelier moments, a smartphone helps us evade ourselves, holding existential questions and torturous self-evaluation at bay. In other words, smartphones too often substitute shallow interactions and white noise for a life of substance.

But could a smartphone pull us back into the world rather than away from it? Could smartphones facilitate real life, instead of substituting for it? Can phones ‘nudge’ their users toward deeper, more genuine involvement in others’ lives?

There are signs that they can:

  • This was the gist of Microsoft’s ‘Really’ ad campaign last fall. Windows Phone uses ‘Live Tiles,’ constantly-updating snippets of relevant info (e.g. upcoming calendar events, latest texts, etc.) to “get you in, out, and back to life.” The world’s largest software company gambled its entire mobile future on the premise that technology is a means, not an end.
  • Or consider the ‘Reminders’ feature in Apple’s newest OS. This service lets you set alerts by location, so that you can remember what you need to get done where. A timely notification might, for example, remind you to stop by the hardware store while you’re at the grocery store next door, saving you an extra trip and wasted time. Now, it’s up to you to spend those regained minutes on things that matter (family, friends, generosity, hospitality, etc.). But you could.
  • Finally, one more way my smartphone keeps me engaged: apps designed for quick, reliable text entry let me data-dump. I can exorcise the nagging thoughts and table ideas ‘til I have time to deal with them properly. This frees me up to focus my full attention on more important things—say, my beautiful wife across the dinner table.

As more mobile devices offer such features, real-life engagement and good phone development have begun to overlap. Well-thought-out phone platforms (and apps) thrust you out into the world; poorly-designed phones mire you in digital escape.

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Apple iOS 4.1 release steals Google’s thunder.

Talk about timing. At the very instant Google was announcing a major revamp of its premiere product, Apple rolled out an update of its own.


Now this could be coincidental.

But maybe Apple saw an opportunity here–a chance to steal press from its chief rival in the smartphone space. After all, relations between the two companies haven’t exactly been friendly as of late.