Be With Me: Heidegger in the Age of the Smartphone

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By Dr. Timothy Rayner
Former Professor of Philosophy, University of Sydney
Writer/Author

Philosophy for Change

It is early morning. A chorus of birds filters through an open window. A young woman lies in bed with her boyfriend. It is a quotidian scene, almost perfect, yet something is off. The boyfriend is checking his smartphone, a web-enabled device. In this moment, his attention is elsewhere. Cut to the outdoors: the couple are getting ready to go jogging. The boyfriend is still caught up with his phone. She waits while he chatters to a friend. Cut to the woman lunching with friends of her own. There is real social chemistry here, a buzz of laughter and conversation. But the others soon start thumbing through screens, engaging with their phones. The young woman has forgotten hers. Her expression, as she looks about the table, is worried as much as reproachful.

Where are you, my friends? Why can’t we just be together?

‘I Forgot My Phone’ is a gem – a softly ironic and resonant statement about life in the smartphone era. It is not a polemic. It features people who are clearly enjoying the connectivity and functionality that their phones provide. The genius of the film is to let us see the world through the eyes of a character who lacks a phone, and is looking for human connection. In this way, it focuses our attention on what happens when we introduce smartphones into social situations.

The protagonist in ‘I Forgot My Phone’ wanders through a set of strangely ‘deworlded’ social events. People co-occupy physical space – sharing a bed, sitting about a table, congregating in a hall – yet their attention is directed away from the people around them to a greater or lesser extent. They exist alongside one another, as opposed to ‘with’ one another, in a psychological and existential sense. Everyone is enjoying private experiences mediated by their smartphones that never add up to something unified and common. A couple enjoy a private event on a public beach; a group of friends at a bowling alley sit hypnotised by their glowing screens; people at a concert engage the show through their video apps, as if they were elsewhere, watching the action unfold. The atmosphere is dead. The experience is so individuated, you could scarcely call it a crowd.

The final scene nails it. A throng of revellers sings ‘Happy Birthday’ as the woman carries a birthday cake into a room. Like the opening scene, it is a quintessential moment. Everyone is singing and joining in. But everyone is filming the event on their smartphones, performing, playing up to anonymous crowds, engaging networks beyond the people directly about them. They may be gathered together, but they are not sharing the moment in the same way and to the same extent. Only the woman seems fully engaged in the situation. She kneels to present her offering, and it almost seems an archaic gesture, as if the simple act of being present and sharing a moment were already outdated, consigned to the past by the futural thrust of digital technology.

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According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), the act of being present with and for others is not only archaic, it is originary. Being-with-others is a world-disclosive act: it opens worlds and keeps them open. Heidegger died before the advent of the internet and mobile phones. Yet his life’s work, from his celebrated study of human existence, in Being and Time (1927), to his critique of modern technology as ‘enframing’ in ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954), anticipates the digital age and offers some important guidelines for negotiating life in the smartphone era.

Heidegger argues that engaging others is a precondition of ‘being-in-the-world’, the essential human experience. It is only by engaging with others in a caring and attentive way that we discover common opportunities and shared goals and visions, and thereby create common contexts, or ‘worlds’, that enable shared understandings.

We speak of the ‘world of business’ and the ‘world of sport’ as if these things existed ‘out there’ in material reality. But worlds are not features of material reality; they are phenomenological constructs that human beings create and sustain through their talk and social interaction. Worlds can be sprawling and inclusive or private and intimate (‘Welcome to my world’). What distinguishes one from the other is the way that they shape our perspective on reality. Ordinary things take on different meanings in the context of different worlds. Consider, for example, an empty field. From the perspective of someone engaged in the world of real estate, the field is a space for a potential housing development. From the perspective of someone engaged in the world of biology, the field is a thriving bed of flora, microfauna, and insect life. From the perspective of someone engaged in the world of sport, it is a playing field – who has the ball?

Reality is open to multiple interpretations. By engaging with others and building common ground, we set up shared world-understandings that shape the interpretations that we apply to our activities and experiences. People who share a world are ‘on the same page’. They ‘get’ one another. When we think and act in light of a shared world, we have a common context and a common sense of meaning, value, and purpose.

Worlds are fragile constructions. Because they are constructed out of common understandings, worlds are only as real as our commitment to sustaining them. ‘I Forgot My Phone’ brilliantly exposes what happens when we betray this commitment. We wind up in a deworlded space with a minimal sense of shared context. Life becomes aimless and unfocused. Conversations trip from topic to topic without ever diving into the deep and meaningful. Social encounters seem ad hoc or stitched together by some arbitrary purpose that no one really understands. It is no wonder that people reach for their smartphones. But tuning out only makes things worse.

The only way to open worlds is to co-create them. Close that screen, put away your smartphone. Attend. Empathise. Engage. Work at creating a common experience of being-in-the-world.

Heidegger distinguishes between authentic and inauthentic modes of being-with-others. Mostly we interact in an inauthentic way. But there are good reasons why we should aspire to authenticity.

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The inauthentic mode of being-with-others is guided by a desire to fit in and conform. We slip into this mode of existence all the time – indeed, it is our habitual mode of being-with-others. Heidegger calls it Das Man: ‘the they’ or the one’. In engaging others, we try to be like them: we speak as they do, copy their clothing, and aspire to be part of a crowd. In brief, we embrace the herd animal in the human being. While, from an individualistic perspective, inauthentic being-with-others may seem abhorrent, it is actually fundamental to the maintenance of social groups. Were it not for our desire to conform, we would struggle to forge shared practices and world-understandings, and thus we’d be incapable of aspiring to more authentic modes of being-in-the-world. Mimicry and conformity are necessary conditions for social life. Yet mimicry and conformity are deficient modes of social engagement. We can do better.

Authentic being-with-others involves leading and shaping social relations more than following and conforming to them. Heidegger calls it Fursorge: ‘care for’ or attentiveness. We engage with others in a caring and attentive way by looking for ways that we can help them be who they are, or better, who they are capable of being. Sometimes we do this a paternalistic way, acting on behalf of others in order to ensure their benefit. But ideally, Heidegger argues, we should engage others in a hands off way, empowering and enabling them so that they are able to seek their own benefit and take charge of their destiny. Heidegger’s vision of authentic engagement seems to be similar to Goethe’s: ‘Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being’.

Authentic engagement lights people up. It makes them feel supported and understood and opens them to their ultimate possibility.

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Authentic engagement is world-disclosing work. Implicity, by trying to enable the other, I acknowledge the value of sharing a world with them. When someone extends this kind of acknowledgement, it lights up the world for both people. Suddenly we are present with one another in a shared time and place. When I am present for you and we both acknowledge it, our deeper identities, and the things we are capable of creating together, come into focus. We become more than just anonymous individuals co-inhabiting the same space. We become fully-realised beings-in-the-world: researchers within reach of a breakthrough; atheletes aspiring to be champions; entrepreneurs looking for a better way to do business; lovers in a parting embrace.

Life becomes full of purpose and meaning. We are more than just alive – we exist.

In an age of mobile communications, in which a panopoly of virtual opportunities distracts us from what is happening in the here and now, it is vital that we rediscover the value of human connection and aspire to a richer and more rewarding life. This holiday season, switch off your smartphones. Make time for authentic engagement. Cultivate stillness and presence. Co-create worlds. Give yourself time to be with the people you love.

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