Brave New World: Considering Solutions to “The Texting Problem”

I don’t think anybody who reads this blog needs to be reminded of my position on phone use in theaters.

However, this issue has again come to the forefront, after a woman maced a man who had repeatedly asked her to stop using her phone in the middle of a screening.  At this point, we have to consider the practical ramifications of living in a world where making a reasonable request for someone to stop being selfish and rude for two whole hours results in being physically assaulted.

Clearly, people in theaters should not be using their phones or talking or otherwise creating a disturbance. It’s rude, and I’m not going to continue to debate that, so all the Anil Dash supporters can withhold their comments. However, accepting that people are going to continue to be dumb and thoughtless, I can then back off my position and say that people who have been asked by others to cease their rude behavior should own up to it and, y’know, stop. It would appear that some people would rather hurt somebody else than to have their shitty behavior corrected, however, so continuing to reiterate that people “just shouldn’t do it” is no longer going to cut it.

We live in a connected society. We’re tethered to our phones and screens, to a point that some of us are (apparently) willing to assault people to keep those connections active. We can’t uninvent smartphones, however, so let’s think about how we can actually solve this problem rather than continuing to bitch about it fruitlessly.

A while back some waves were made in the film community because some people began throwing around the idea of “screen friendly” theaters (ironic name, don’tcha think?): select auditoriums in theaters that would be designated as phone and device friendly. The response was pretty uniformly negative, and I was among those opposed. However, in light of incidents like the above linked one, I’m rethinking my stance. After all, short of patting down people coming into theaters and confiscating phones, we can’t actually stop people from texting or talking on the phone. We can react, but we can’t stop it. But when there is a clear threat of a violent reaction to the person correcting the behavior (be it a fellow filmgoer or an usher or a security guard), we have to start thinking about a safe way to deal with it, much as it pains me to kowtow to buffoons.

If there were such auditoriums in theaters, they would have to be designated as phone free concurrently with a zero tolerance crackdown on the “no-phone” theaters. In my ideal scenario, that consists of ushers or security being posted inside the auditorium whose sole job is to be proactive about detecting phone use, and who, no arguments, eject first time offenders with no refund. Anything less means that the theater will have a few screenings a day that are guaranteed to be annoying for anybody who doesn’t want to be disturbed, and the others will have a 90% chance of being annoying. I have little faith that theaters that designate “screen friendly” theaters will be proactive about enforcing existing policies or implementing stricter ones. To (most of) the big chains, it’s all about money, not about crafting an enjoyable experience.

Alternatively, I think we need to shift the focus to providing a safe place for people who don’t want their experience disturbed. If Anil Dash and his ilk are correct and the majority of people are totally into people texting and talking and being obnoxious (a dubious claim), then people like me (and nearly everyone else I know) deserve a space too. We need a theater where we can rest easy knowing that nobody will whip out their phone or attack us if we ask them to be quiet. I’d personally love to see a theater with a coat-check like phone-check system, perhaps with lockers for added security (implement the same zero tolerance for screens policy in these theaters as well). To everyone who always counters “What about people who need their phone like doctors, etc”, I say this: if you really can’t be without your phone for 90 minutes, you either have a disgusting security-blanket addiction to technology or you are too busy to go to a movie. Or, in this future semi-dystopia I’ve concocted, you can go to one of the many “screen friendly” theaters instead of ruining my experience like a selfish brat.

So there’s the bottom line: movie talkers and texters are either a selfish minority or an oppressive majority. Either way, if we’re going to talk about the spirit of compromise, we should all acknowledge that people who don’t want to deal with one of the few things they love being soured deserve a place to watch movies too.

Also, if there’s any justice in this world, that woman will be arrested for assault.

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