First Click: Don't be so quick to laugh at that BBC reporter’s bizarre palm phone

August 4th, 2015


Maybe you’ve already seen the video where a human reporter pretends his hand is a smartphone at the close of his televised segment. Yes, he's tapping and swiping on his palm, not his Palm — there is no device.

My first reaction was to laugh and point a derisive finger at the BBC's Chris Mitchell in that WTF way the internet has conditioned me to respond. But having slept on it, I realize Mitchell isn’t terribly different from me or anyone else.

Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends report made headlines a few years ago when she revealed that cellphone users reach for their phones about 150 times per day. That’s almost once every 6 minutes assuming 8 hours of sleep. While some of those experiences are rewarded with need-to-know information or a smile, more often than not, checking a phone is just a mechanical compulsion done when faced with being alone.

The great American sociologist Louis CK once observed that people use smartphones so that we never have to feel that loneliness. "You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kind of satisfied with your product and then you die."

As an experiment, yesterday I muted and kept my phone pocketed while seated alone at a cafe for 15 minutes. It was uncomfortable. I pull out my phone at traffic lights, while standing in line at the cash machine, or waiting to pay at the market. I do it without thinking, on impulse, as a diversion — just as soon as life begins to idle.

Like Mitchell, I’ve fake-used technology before. Although I used a prop, wearing earbuds without any music playing to avoid being harassed by the homeless that used to roost outside my home. I’ve seen colleagues do the same to avoid being bothered while writing. You might even hold a phone to your ear as a do-not-disturb signal to others, even when nobody is on the other end of the line.

Newscasters used to have desks where they could stack papers at the end of segments. Jon Stewart has his pen and paper for doodling. Letterman had his stacks of blue note cards to shuffle.

Mitchell, standing alone, cameras trained on him with the expectation of movement, didn’t have any props to help cope with the stress of filling the empty air. So he took to swiping at a "hand built" device (he’d later quip on Twitter).

His response, while bizarre, is merely an exaggerated reflection of a smartphone obsessed society that craves constant stimulation. Let she without sin cast the first laugh.

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