Just remember to put your phone down sometimes”

About a decade ago, I went out to lunch with several friends in Berlin at La Bonne Franquette, a French restaurant near the Nokia office where they all worked.

Beyond the good company and the good food, the meal was remarkable in that it was the first time I witnessed a group of familiars simultaneously remove their mobile phones from their pockets, check in on Foursquare, and then leave their phones on the table beside them.

In that simple action, mobile phones went from being private objects to being public objects, and everything that’s happened since that point has only moved us farther down that road. To the point where, sitting in Kettle Black Marché the other day, I was witness to someone watching a YouTube video on their mobile, without earphones, as though it was a completely normal thing.

In light of this trajectory toward the complete breakdown of the social contract, I was heartened to come across some buffeting winds in the past week.

First, a colleague who’s just started a a new position messaged me about his new working conditions:

They have a strict “no mobile devices” in the main house, if you are in a conversation with a group.

I would vote for that as a universal rule, if given the opportunity.

On the same day, CBC’s Q aired an interview with the musician Sara Bareilles where

Tom Power: Why did you take it upon yourself to write the jingle for turning off your cell phone at your musical?

Sara Bareilles: Phones are such a problem in the theatre at this point… oh my gosh, it’s extraordinarily bad. People videoing… just forgetting that they’re not engaging in an experience that’s a normal… I mean concert goers alone are so glued to their phones… that’s something I’ve noticed over the years, is that more and more people are watching us through the screens on their phones, standing in front of you, but they’re paying attention to what they’re getting on a video, which is a strange kind of phenomenon to have evolved. But the theatre, for all intents and purposes, is still a sacred space that way. So we thought maybe we could do it in a kind of cheeky, funny way, to remind people that phones are not allowed.

TP: That’s kinda nice.

SB: It doesn’t work. People still bring out their phones all the time. It’s annoying.

TP: I went to a Jack White concert not that long ago, and he does that thing where you gotta put your phone in a pouch. You put your phone in a pouch and it locks. You get to take it with you, and then you get to unlock it on the way out. And that’s when you get your phone back. Dave Chappelle does it too. What’s cool about it is that, I was kind of “Give me a break, I’m an adult…” But when I went to the show, it was like 17,000 people, and every single person was looking at the stage. Now I know that sounds–if you’re listening to this at home–”of course they are Tom, it was a concert.”

SB: No, but they’re not. They’re usually not.

TP: It was amazing.

SB: Yeah. I’ll tell you what I noticed: I just did a little promo tour, I have a new record that just came out and I’ll be going on tour in the fall, but I did a little four-show promo tour, and because people weren’t familiar with the material yet, nobody took their phones out. Which I thought was amazing. I haven’t looked out at an audience in a long time and not have them be holding up their phones. So I thought that was really interesting. Just remember to put your phone down sometimes.

A couple of days later, reading Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National in The New Yorker, I learned that phones are not allowed at the Masters Tournament:

Each member of the media has a work station with a brass nameplate, a leather swivel chair, a pair of computer monitors, and a surfeit of real-time tournament footage and information—far more data than one would be able to gather out on the golf course, especially because, outside the press building, reporters are not allowed to carry cell phones. (The phone ban, strictly enforced and punishable by immediate removal from the grounds, applies to patrons and members, too. One morning during the tournament this year, a story went around that the club had done a spot inspection of staff headquarters and found that an employee had hidden a cell phone between two slices of bread.) The golfers and the tournament officials appear dutifully for press conferences; why bother heading out to the clubhouse to hound them for quotes? No phones are allowed at the press conferences, either. The club wants control over sounds and pictures—the content.

These are all hopeful signs that the tide might be turning in the other direction.

One of the unanticipated consequences of arranging our chairs in a circle at the Crafting {:} a Life unconference last month is that the architecture of the arrangement made using mobile phones socially unacceptable: we didn’t need to even bring it up, as it would have been simply too noticeable (and shameful) to disengage so obviously. Of course we also tried to create an engaging situation–”new material,” in the Bareilles construction–where the opportunity to interact with present humans was more alluring that whatever the digital universe might offer.

I have a good friend who, when we first got to know each other was, if not a Luddite, at least disinclined to bring technology out into public. Since that time, though, he’s moved up the career ladder to the point where it’s a job requirement that he not only carry a phone, but that he respond to text messages and emails immediately (if only because, if he doesn’t, the backlog will become untenable). As a result of this transformation, going to lunch with him has become a period punctuated by long and uncomfortable silences while he does business at the table.

Would it be too much to bring a locking pouch to our next meal out?