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Are Smart Phones Spoiling Our Public Spaces

The smart phones that keep us constantly connected to cyberspace may have detrimental effects on our public spaces, writes Emily Badger.
May 20, 2012, 11am PDT | Alesia Hsiao
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Remember the flip-phone glory days of just five years ago, when people in public spaces would make eye contact, ask for directions, or even say a friendly hello when passing by. Those days seem long gone, as smartphone use has created "portable private personal territories," in which fellow pedestrians are much more likely to be engrossed in checking their phones to see the new Facebook or Twitter update, read email, or send a text.

The change in mobile technology has prompted Tali Hatuka and Eran Toch from Tel Aviv University to study how phone users view their devices - and how they feel about the behavior of others. They've found that "Smart-phone users, for starters, are much more commonly under the illusion that they have privacy even when walking down a public sidewalk. They're less skittish about having personal conversations in public. They're more detached from their physical surroundings."

As smart phone users retreat into their own private spheres, public spaces suffer, notes Badger. "This is not a good thing. The public sphere plays an important role in our communities: it's where we observe and learn to interact with people who are different from us, or, as academics put it, it's where we come to know 'the other.'"

"The communication of strangers was always one of the key roles of public spaces, observing and exchanging with the other. Because smart phones are supplying so many of these services, this kind of exchange with the stranger is just diminished to almost zero," observes Hatuka. Although she has not found the answer to resolving this change in behavior, she recommends that technology, ironically, may be the very tool to help keep the "public" in the public sphere.

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Published on Wednesday, May 16, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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