Our smartphones, we're being told, are responsible for a big spike in urban crime.
San Francisco transit authorities have even started a safety campaign this holiday season -- "Eyes Up, Phones Down" -- to focus riders' attention on the issue.
I've got a question: Aren't criminals responsible for crime?
Sure, we probably shouldn't walk down dangerous streets waving $100 bills. But do we need a public service campaign that treats us like infants, reminding us to be street smart when it comes to smartphones?
And doesn't that ignore who's really responsible?
I don't buy the notion that our phones have created a whole host of social ills -- distracted driving, the collapse of manners, even our avoidance of dealing with the big questions like, "What is the meaning of life" -- because they've turned us into emotionally adrift people who info-snack all day.
It makes some sense that we are in the process of collectively working out the societal changes wrought by the powerful pocket-size computers more of us carry around. Today, 56 percent of Americans own a smartphone, up from 33 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Smartphones are like "wild animals," said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. "We have to tame them."
But what we really need to do is tame ourselves. Instead, we abdicate responsibility, and public officials and lawmakers feel they need to tell us how to handle ourselves with new laws, crime-fighting campaigns and general admonishments. The situation is so absurd that it seems that with every gadget, we require an accompanying guide book and set of laws to spell out what being responsible means, given our new powers.
And I also feel that the digitally connected get unfairly bashed for simply using their gadgets. Take, for example, the murder this fall of a San Francisco student on a train. Before he shot the victim, the suspect, according to a police account of surveillance video, pulled his gun out three or four times. No one noticed because they were in a state of digital torpor, police say, absorbed by their smartphones.
The bystanders' behavior has become a national touchstone, sparking a discussion of how we are going to hell with our Samsung Galaxy. But bystanders have always been unreliable and inattentive. And besides, one advantage of taking public transportation is being able to zone out, right?
Those points have been lost in the overheated conversation that we have ceded our basic humanity to devices too powerful for us to control. Read your email and miss the crazed man scratching his nose with his pistol.
I agree with Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Smartphones with their maps, cameras and various means of communicating have made us safer. Castigating people for relying on the device doesn't make sense. "I think the scapegoating is just that, scapegoating," she said.
Yes, the compulsive checking for email, stock quotes, Facebook updates and Twitter streams is irritating in social situations. It's as if we have all become ER doctors, with life-threatening dilemmas and STAT orders.
It's hard for many of us to just be in the moment. When I want to avoid family drama, I reach for my iPhone -- but that's probably a lot like my mother, who'd light a cigarette.
But we don't need a public service campaign or worse, an app, to remind us every 10 minutes to look up and notice what's happening. We know, we know.
Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at twitter.com/michellequinn.