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January 23, 2015

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Moralist attacks on ‘phubbers’ fail to recall we have always found paths to distraction

A young colleague told me on Tuesday that he would write an article to criticize phubbers — those who lower their heads and bend their necks to play mobile phones or tablets — often neglecting what happens around them.

“What’s your point, then?” I asked. “Are you still going to criticize them if they replace a mobile phone with a book?”

“If they read a book, at least they acquire knowledge, but when they play a mobile phone, they get information only,” my colleague quipped back.

“What if they read a book on a mobile phone or a Kindle?” I asked gently, hoping to make him see things more clearly. “And even if one gets only information from a mobile phone, say the place and time of a meeting, can we say that such information is less important than some knowledge a book may impart?”

“Well, that, I would have nothing to say,” my colleague gave in. “But my point is, we are getting worse and worse by the generation. About 30 years ago, we had TV in our life for the first time, and TV was much less harmful than mobile phones in terms of distraction.”

I said: “Certainly, you cannot bring a TV set around everywhere, the way you carry a mobile phone, but TV distracts our attention from family communication or outdoor sport in no smaller measure than mobile phones do. People tend to blame things in the here and now (like mobile phones) than things of the past (like TV), while actually the two are equally distractive, only in different ways.”

Double standards

Ever since “phubber” became a buzzword, I have heard many people attacking the phubbers just because they use a mobile phone or tablet everywhere you see them — no matter what they actually read on the mobile device.

While obsession with a mobile phone or tablet can be dangerous to one’s life, reading a book everywhere one goes can be as dangerous.

But strangely, few would find fault with a bookworm who reads while walking, neglecting all that happens around — be it an open pit or heavy traffic.

In fact, in the 1970s when I went to junior middle school, we were taught at school and home to emulate those noble people who unwittingly ran into a utility pole while reading a book.

To a large extent, we care less about a phubber’s life security (as we purport to) than about the fact that he plays a mobile phone. If someone reading a book while walking fell into an open pit, chances are we would feel sorry for him or her, instead of directing anger.

So, how shall we treat phubbers? Here are my two suggestions.

One, if we truly care about their security (don’t fall into a pit or get run over by a car), we should say only this: “Don’t read a mobile phone while walking.” This is just like how we caution a bookworm: “Don’t read a book while walking.”

Desire for pleasure

Two, even if we actually care about the undesirable content that often comes with a mobile phone, such a device is never the culprit for one’s distraction; one’s desire for pleasure is. If we do not rein in our wanton heart for pleasure, we will crave something else tomorrow, when a mobile phone or tablet is out of fashion.

In ancient times, there were no phones or tablets or TV, but people suffered from a distracted way of life in their own way. One day when Buddha traveled, he saw a group of rowdy young men chasing a prostitute. Buddha asked them why they did so, and they replied that the woman had decamped with their money. Buddha then smiled and said to them: “Which is more important, having your money back, or your heart back?” Legend has it that the rowdy young men were enlightened on the spot.

“If we get our heart right, worldly things will fall in their own order,” said Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a great Confucian scholar and military strategist.

Today’s commentators prefer to pick the easy target for a moral attack.

In the case of a phubber, critiques choose the phone or tablet as the culprit as if doing away with these modern gadgets will save one from distraction. And in picking an easy scapegoat for one’s slip from enlightenment, critiques often make the unenlightened move to beautify the past with too broad a sweep.


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