Obsessed with smartphones, oblivious to the here and now

Jay Ferrari of Northwest Washington multitasks: consulting his laptop while providing a comfortable napping surface for daughter Violet, 3 months.
Jay Ferrari of Northwest Washington multitasks: consulting his laptop while providing a comfortable napping surface for daughter Violet, 3 months. (Bill O'Leary/Post)
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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010

Jay Ferrari was squatting on a step-stool next to the bathtub, which held his 4-year-old daughter and a rising tide, when he sensed an opening to use the Sicilian Dragon defense in his iPhone-to-iPhone chess match against his neighbor.

"Why do my feet feel wet?" he thought. He looked down. His feet were soaked. He turned and saw an ecstatic little girl enjoying her first tsunami.

"Oh, no," Ferrari said. He didn't flinch. With one hand, he executed the chess move; with the other, he turned off the faucet. The absurdity of the moment was not lost on him -- or his wife. "Dude," he told himself, "this is not appropriate. What are you doing?"

Physically, Ferrari resides in the Manor Park section of Northwest Washington, but his wife would say he really lives in a digital world, where smartphones are more stimulating to some people than the life unfolding around them.

You see these tethered souls everywhere: The father joining in an intense Twitter debate at his daughter's dance recital. The woman cracking wise on Facebook while strolling through the mall. The guy on a date reviewing his fish tacos on Yelp. Not to mention drivers staring down instead of through their windshields.

Physically, they are present. Mentally, they are elsewhere, existing as bits of data pinging between cellphone towers.

"My wife has physically pulled the thing out of my hands a couple times," said Ferrari, who has been nabbed checking his Twitter feed at, among other places, his in-laws' dining room table. "She says it's like I'm picking my nose in public."

Doomsayers have long predicted that technological progress would turn us into shut-ins who rarely venture from our game-playing, IM-ing digital cocoons out into the physical world. But the stereotype of the computer-addicted recluse in the basement has been blown away; smartphones make it possible to turn off the physical world while walking through it.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that "a significant proportion of people who visit public and semipublic spaces are online while in those spaces." Parks. Libraries. Restaurants. Houses of worship.

'Checking out'

The doomsayers didn't foresee the portability that smartphones bring to digital obsession. Nor did they foresee app stores. More than 2 billion applications have been downloaded for iPhones, and the Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, expects 7 billion app downloads via all mobile devices by 2013 -- an overwhelming new universe of diversion.

The competition this digital world poses stretches into life's most intimate places. Elizabeth Sloan, a local marriage counselor, worked with a couple after the husband began surfing his smartphone during sex.

"I wish I was joking," Sloan said. "This is a real hot topic right now for marriage counselors -- and the complaints are coming from men and women. You hear this a lot: 'I can't reach you. I can't find you. You can be sitting two inches from me, but you are not there. Where are you?' Spouses are checking out at dinner, on vacation. It's really become a 24-7 thing."

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