December 4, 2012

You don’t know where they’ve been. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At this very moment, I realize, our economy is barreling towards the edge of the “fiscal cliff,” and we should push all other concerns from our minds, kneel down and start making sacrifices to the relevant deities. To speak of anything else seems wasteful.

Yet I must.

Nielsen has just emerged with the information that more than a third of Americans 18-24 report using social networking sites in the bathroom.

They tried to bury this revelation in a report about How Many Screens Americans Watch Television on, along with such juicy numbers as the 157.5 billion minutes we spent on our devices in June 2012, nearly double the 81.5 billion minutes of the previous year. But you cannot simply bury this kind of news.

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge the truth. For the past several years, the remark, “I need to go visit the restroom,” made during dinner, or drinks, or any sort of Real Human Contact, has been synonymous with: “I am going to go sit in the restroom and check my smartphone.”

And it’s only polite.

“I need to — use the facilities,” is acceptable. “I need to tweet,” is not. “Your conversation, while gripping, is not the Internet,” is just rude. We all know this, but we hate to be reminded.

All those years of people insisting that we not bring our smartphones to the dinner table have limited our options. You forced our hand. We did not want to choose between You and The Entire Internet. But when confronted with the choice, the winner is obvious. One of the greatest modern terrors is the fear that everyone else is hanging out without you having the experiences that will cement their friendship forever. And now, with the Internet, they always are. No matter where you are, there is invariably a more interesting conversation going on somewhere else.

If people would allow for a pause in their conversation during which you could see what The Internet Half was saying, it might be all right. But that was rude. Instead, you sat at dinner while Pop Pop told you very slowly about a curious thing that had happened at the mill. You nodded. Your hand went to your phone. You caught the hand back. Pop Pop continued to drone on about the mill.

“I need to visit the restroom,” you said.

But we knew what you meant.

Should we be troubled by this?

Sometimes, when a writer goes to the restroom with smartphone in hand, what he sends over the Internet to be Seen By Everyone and Preserved Forever is fouler and less insightful than what he leaves in the stall. Then again, Martin Luther reportedly came up with most of his best ideas about salvation in the toilet, or garderobe, or whatever it was called in Wittenberg in that time. I am not making this up. It was as he sat there, with furrowed brow, that Satan would appear to taunt him and pelt him with stray objects. And out of this came Protestantism! If Martin Luther could have used his smartphone in the garderobe, I feel confident that he would have.

Quality springs from the participants, not the accoutrements. 

Some suggest that it is foolhardy to multi-task — that, in actual fact, human beings are incapable of multi-tasking. But it’s hardly multi-tasking! In many cases, the process of composing a tweet and the process the writer is simultaneously engaged in are one and the same.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.