Enough with the phone shaming. Wireless freedom for all!

Tabatha Southey: Ideas and news are pumped into our conversations, by our phones, where they can be discussed and debated, and are as welcome as oxygen in an excellent, comfortable, but closed room
Angie and me, 2014 (Eric Pickersgill)

This week something went viral on Facebook. No, it was not an easily remixable meme or a picture of some adorable (but as we are quickly told in the comments, terribly endangered) animal sitting in something one would not expect an animal to be sitting in.

No, this week it was Eric Pickersgill’s photography series Removed that eclipsed all the innovative, unlikely (and ultimately, disappointing) methods of quickly separating a food item from its peel. Even the scorching takes on 1990s television series didn’t stand a chance.

According to a glowing endorsement on the project’s webpage, “By eliminating the source connectivity,” Removed “rescinds the veil of contemporary technology’s hold on our devotion,” and if this doesn’t put you much closer to understanding what Removed is, I am at your service.

“Source connectivity” is more commonly known as “phones,” and Removed is a series of photographs of people in everyday situations, with their phones removed. Literally, physically removed from their hands, so the end result is less “a bit sad and eerie—and a reminder, perhaps, to put our phones away” (as the August Quartz piece currently making the rounds puts it), and more “people doing their best to pretend they’re still holding onto the phone or tablet a photographer has just taken away from them.”

The Removed project began in 2014 when Mr. Pickersgill saw a family looking at their phones in a cafe and was “saddened” by how technology had rendered the attendant children uninterested in their dad talking about fish. The artist’s work on the subject continues to this day.

This means that at this point, somebody has managed to find this concept of “No phones where one might normally expect to find a phone” compelling for five years.

The picture that was posted by friend after friend after friend, over and over and over, was of a couple lying in bed back to back, each of them staring at their own empty hand, and people were quick to lament and lament and re-lament how society had lost its way.

“Put down your phone!” The cry went out. “Put down your phone! Just talk to each other,” a thousand voices smuggly suggested. Countless heads nodded sagely and said, “Don’t you see how sad you look? Read a book—but not on your phone; read a book in a format I, a stranger on the internet, would approve of!”

The call was that we need to communicate more, but not like that. It was demanded the we find something to discuss, as long as that something wasn’t breaking news, fascinating information or just something heartwarming we’d just discovered through an immensely powerful and highly portable communication device that is making the world far more accessible and safe for so many.

Personally, my main concern when I saw the post was that the people in the picture look as if they don’t know what to do with their hands in bed—a tragic, and all too common, affliction. I looked for the “Please donate” button.

To me, their soulful gazes didn’t so much say, “Help, I have been stripped of my comforting electronic cocoon” as, “The problem is I don’t like my arms being under the blanket, it’s too hot, but if I put one under my head it goes to sleep, and if I just leave it dangling around I feel kinda weird, like I’m miming being spaghetti. What do?” And on the other side of the bed, “Oh dear, he’s making that ‘trying to work out what to do with his arms’ face again.” And that is in fact a troubling sight to see.
Of course, I thought,  if these people had their phones in their damn hands, we’d know they could be reading, catching up on the news perhaps, checking when that paediatrician appointment is tomorrow, because it’s going to be such a busy day, messaging their widowed dad to say they’re coming out on Sunday, making a funny joke on Twitter or just not being in the face of the person they share a bed with every night, every single minute, because that does not, in itself, make for a healthy, happy, or even less lonely, relationship.

What did all the anguished posters want this couple to be doing? How do they know they didn’t just do it? If you don’t check your phone after sex, you’re not even human, or no one’s counting on you.

Would everyone be posting adoringly if they both had novels in their hand? Even though that is, arguably, a far more solitary pastime? And one that was also once dismissed a troubling distraction or a symptom of societal moral decline?

If Mr. and Mrs. Isn’t It Sad Just Look At Them were writing letters on hand-pressed paper stationary, would they pass muster? What about reading the news on a broadsheet? Is that inherently a bonding activity, as opposed to reading it on a phone? What if they were just watching television in bed, a much less social medium?

It’s easy to forget that at one point just about everyone who could afford it used to have separate bedrooms, and this was also not a “strange and lonely world,” as the Quartz article pronounced Mr. O. Tempora and Ms. O. Mores’ world to be.

I often hear people complain about how they saw someone “out at a party, checking their cellphone!” But of course people have responsibilities, and without those cellphones they might not be able to go to those parties. No phone shame, I say, and when I hear people complain that we should all make direct eye contact and converse with the people around us, all I can think is, “Hell is empty and all the devils are trying to strike up a conversation in line at Starbucks.”

As a mother, I found cellphones incredibly liberating and reassuring as well as fun for everyone involved, and I got them for my children “too young.” From time to time, one of my children, with whom I spend an awful lot of wonderful time, will say, “Do you want to go out for dinner and make the table next to us really mad?” and I’m almost always up for that. Sometimes one of my children will improvise the imagined indignant Facebook post that the neighbouring table will write about us when they get home because, yes, we are “A family! Out for a nice meal! On their phones half the time!”

That’s us. Ideas and news are pumped into our conversation, by our phones, where they can be discussed and debated, and are as welcome as oxygen in an excellent, comfortable, but closed room.

We’re that family. Just waiting to inspire some photographer’s five-year art project steeped in an imagined nostalgia for a time when, when children had the chance, they listened to their dads’ talk about fish, and they liked it.