Social Hang-Ups

Chad W. Lutz
I was on my way to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park last night, driving northbound along I-77 from Canton when up ahead in the road was a towering funnel of black smoke billowing high into the evening sky. Obviously this was cause for alarm, as plumes of smoke rising from the highway rarely suggest free ice cream. There was a car on fire, an SUV, which appeared to have burst into flames upon hitting the median retaining wall. There were no emergency vehicles on the scene yet. Reacting on nerve, I picked up my cellphone and immediately dialed 911. The dispatch on the other end asked for the location of my emergency. Before I could even mutter the words "accident" and "highway" together, she fed exactly what I was about to describe. I agreed, and she said there were already emergency responders on the way.

The flames towered about five feet above the vehicle. Already the tires were melting to the road. You couldn't see in through any of the windows; they were completely awash with fire. As I hung up the phone, I could see a police car charging up the hill behind the pile of traffic beginning to form. On the other side of the median, five or six cars were strewn about like some six year old had been playing Demolition Derby. It was the kind of sight that makes you instantly sick to your stomach and pulls at your heart for all of those involved. But as I tossed my phone down onto the seat next to me and casually looked over into the car next to me to decompress, I saw something that made me even nauseous.

To my left, candidly and as casually as you might find people sharing a favorite YouTube video were a mother and daughter driving in a blue Toyota, a seemingly innocent site given any other circumstances. But in this instance, the daughter was taking photographs of the wreckage with her smart phone and then the duo took turns passing the picture back and forth. They were smiling. They looked like they were flipping through yearbook photos.
According to a recent Nielsen survey reported on Engadget.com February 11, 2014, a staggering "65-percent of all Americans" now own a smart phone. The data was collected to reflect the purchasing power of consumers regarding digital electronics over the 2013 calendar year. The article also reports a two-thirds jump in smart phone ownership from 2011 to 2013 alone. Comparatively, the U.S. Federal Reserve in an annual report titled Consumers and Mobile Financial Services released in March 2013 reports: "87-percent of the U.S. adult population has a mobile phone" with smart phone owners representing, again, roughly two-thirds of that figure (52%).

As the landscapes continue to change with the advent of new technologies, concerns for social responsibility continue to come into question by sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists alike. Without question, researchers agree that smart phones are completely altering the way in which we communicate, interact, and think, creating a new definition of what business and personal time mean in social settings. An anthropologist by the penname of Ross published an article on Anthropology.ua.edu in November of 2013 talking about the societal impacts of smart phones on their users. One of the key things the author noted was: "the potential to lead to a dissociative state," when referencing the increased exposure to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media apps at the touch of button in the palm of your hand. The "immersive" nature of the easy-to-access applications create the widespread possibility of lulled and "reserved" states of consciousness due to their rhythmic applications and structures of use.

Peering into the blue Toyota to find a mother and her daughter gawking over photos of potentially torched bodies burning like roman candles on the embankment along a busy highway with chance for survival little-to-nigh, I wondered to myself if this was the type of state these two individuals were under the influence. Is it now a natural reaction, now that over two-thirds of us have smart phones, to simply take out our phones every time something significant happens and innocently snap a photo without even thinking of the social responsibility we carry in taking said photos?

On the flip side of things, many other sociologists have cited innumerous advantages to smart phone use among the U.S. adult populations. There are apps that assist the disabled, games that teach children rudimentary English, math, science, and social studies, and 24-hour news feeds that keep people connected to local communities and the world as a whole. Apps like FaceTime allow friends living on different continents to interact at leisure despite busy, hectic schedules or time-zone differences. Snapchat, another visual application, allows friends, family, and acquaintances to communicate via photo. As the world population continues to push beyond 7 billion and hurtle toward an estimated 8 billion by 2025 (11 years from now), smart phones have bridged the gap and truly made the previous enormity of the world seem trivial.

But what happens when the sanctity of something like a burning car wreck, which could be any of us, given bad luck and the right day, loses its aura of tragedy and becomes just another random stock photo in somebody's iPhoto library? With smart phone sales projected to continue current paces in coming years, what kind of responsibility do we have as a culture, as a collective conscious, to use modern technology in a manner that still preserves our humanity and the dignity most probably agree we all deserve?