Yesterday I took a couple of my kids to a symphony Christmas concert. During the performance, a woman and her daughter, a girl who looked to be about 12 or 13, sat in front of us fiddling with their smartphones — this, throughout the entire concert. It was shocking. When I tell you “the entire concert,” I mean that literally. The mom put her phone down to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus (perhaps because she saw everyone else standing), but she allowed her daughter to remain seated, texting. Other than that, they both stayed on their phones throughout the entire two-hour performance.
The pair Facebooked, Instagrammed, e-mailed, and texted. I tell you this because it was impossible to avoid seeing the light on their screens from where I was sitting.
Why on earth had they dressed up to come to the concert, when all they did was focus on their phones? Has obsessive use of smartphones and social media destroyed their ability to sustain attention to the world around them for two hours? Tim Wu’s smart, insightful, at times even scary book The Attention Merchants is a history of how advertisers, from the beginning of the mass media era in the 19th century, have developed ever more ingenious techniques for capturing the consumer’s attention. Wu ends the book by calling for “a human reclamation project.” He writes, “Over the coming century, the most vital human resource in need of conversation and protection is likely to be our own mental space.” To judge by their bizarre display yesterday, that woman and her daughter are addicts.
The kids thought the mother-daughter couple’s behavior was strange. I told the kids on the way out that that’s exactly why mom and dad limit their time with electronics. We don’t want them to become people who go to concerts but who are so addicted to their smartphones that they can’t tear themselves away long enough to enjoy the music and the moment.
There’s a second point, I think: the loss of a sense of public decorum. Had the concert bored me out of my mind, I still would not have pulled my smartphone out of my pocket and checked out, simply because that is not how one behaves at the symphony, or at the theater. To have done so would have been to have revealed myself as ill-mannered, mostly because it expressed a lack of respect for others around me in the audience, as well as for the performers, and for the occasion. We had a manners lesson on the drive home from the concert. I told my kids that it doesn’t matter what everybody else around you is doing, you behave in the correct way because you know who you are. Respecting others and the occasion is a way of respecting yourself.
Does that sound old-fashioned to you? So I’m old-fashioned. I’ll take that as a compliment.
Last week, we checked out of the library a DVD of the pop singer Adele’s concert at The Royal Albert Hall in London. My kids like her songs, and so do I, when I’ve heard them. I also love the fact that she’s a working-class Londoner who has become a worldwide success on the basis of her extraordinary talent. She has seemed so likable in the few interviews I’ve seen with her on TV.
This was a hard concert to get through with the kids, because Adele has a very foul mouth. Frankly, if the kids weren’t watching, it would have been hard to get through because I was embarrassed for the singer, talking like a pub slattern from the stage of The Royal Albert Hall. I am not a prude about language, as my male friends will attest. But there is a time and a place for that kind of talk, and onstage at The Royal Albert Hall is not it, at least not if you are a gorgeous singer of pop ballads like Adele. Her fans didn’t seem to mind it at all, to be clear, but I every time she dropped an f-bomb, I kept thinking, You are so beautiful, so enormously talented, such a gifted artist, and here you are, in The Royal Albert Hall, a high temple of musical performance, in a moment of complete triumph, and … this is how you talk?
It didn’t make me mad, really, only sad for her, and for a popular culture that doesn’t know how to behave in a place like The Royal Albert Hall, or anywhere else that’s not a rodeo arena, pretty much. Can you imagine being elderly Adele, looking back on a career of fame and accomplishment, screening your performance at The Royal Albert Hall for your grandchildren, and having to listen to your younger self, speaking like that? It’s as if the cardinal archbishop of Paris showed up to celebrate Easter mass at Notre Dame wearing a faded Def Leppard concert t-shirt. I’ll admit that I don’t want to hear Adele swear anywhere (or the cardinal archbishop of Paris wear concert t-shirts), but it wouldn’t bother me so much if she were doing it in a louchier venue. Context is 90 percent of it.
You don’t judge The Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Albert Hall judges you. That principle works everywhere.