Last month, shortly before five in the afternoon on Christmas Day, a man from Indiana fell to his death from atop an ocean lookout at Sunset Cliffs, in San Diego. He was, at the time, according to news accounts, focussed solely on an electronic device—a phone, or perhaps a camera—and seems to have simply walked off the precipice, plummeting more than forty feet to the jagged rocks below.
Headlines referred to the thirty-three-year-old as “Distracted Man,” “Man Engrossed in Cellphone,” and, perhaps most odiously, “Guy Looking at Device,” but his name was Joshua M. Burwell.
I found out about this tragedy two days after it happened, on a Sunday afternoon, in a way that sort of typifies the manner in which I learn about most things these days. My wife and I were sitting together on the couch, watching a football game on my laptop.
The browser window showing the game covered about three-fourths of the thirteen-inch screen. This live stream abutted a three-inch-wide strip at the far right of the screen given over to my scrolling Twitter time line. At the very bottom of the screen stretched a tiny sliver of real estate wherein another browser window was open, to my Gmail account, so I’d notice when any new mail arrived.
Directly beyond my computer, eight feet in the distance, a home-improvement show proceeded on a television with its sound muted. As we watched the game, we occasionally looked up and commented on things, like backsplash color combinations or the wisdom of buying a home with popcorn ceilings.
We were getting hungry, so my wife was using her own laptop to scan Yelp reviews of brunch spots in the Berkeley, California, area.
Just as our team’s quarterback threw a devastating interception, my wife’s iPhone, perched at the edge of the couch, made an odd sound. It was a FaceTime video call from her mother, in New York. She wanted us to watch as my brother-in-law opened a holiday gift. At one point during the call, my wife pointed at the TV and offered up an exaggerated thumbs-down: the couple on the show had decided to go with an all-white motif for their dining room; it looked sterile. “So lame,” she mouthed to me, out of view of the FaceTime camera.
Right about then, a tweet from Slate caught my eye: “Man Distracted by Electronic Device Falls to His Death Off San Diego Cliff.”
I motioned to my wife and pointed at the tweet. We shook our heads in unison as I copied the link from the tweet, clicked on the browser at the bottom of my screen to access Gmail, and began composing a new message with the subject heading “TO READ.” I pasted the link into the body of the e-mail, and then I sent that e-mail to myself so that I could return to it following the football game.
Four hours later, after my team had lost, and subsequent to a disappointing brunch in Kensington that featured an overly greasy omelet, I read about that poor man who fell off the cliff in San Diego.
A week or so earlier, I had finished a book by David M. Levy called “Mindful Tech.” It is about better understanding how and why we use tech devices in the ways that we do, and how we might use them better. The book urges readers to examine how they engage with computers and phones and so on, and to consider adjusting these practices as necessary. “When we see our habits and patterns for ourselves,” Levy writes, “we are in a better position to make meaningful changes.”
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