Simon King has a provocative blog post about the relationship between using technologies on-location, and actually being present in the location where you’re checking. He begins by comparing e-readers and smartphones to books or magazines:

In my experience, there is a huge social difference between using an iPhone and physical media such as a book or magazine. The numerous possible activities afforded by an iPhone creates a “down the rabbit hole” effect that draws the user deeper into their own self and projects an unapproachable air to others because they can not gauge the purpose, or level of intensity, in which you are engaged. In contrast, a book or magazine projects a temporary, non-transactional activity, and the trivialness of interruption is obvious.

Then he moves onto those technologies that are explicitly focused on tying our net use to our physical location — which is a far different thing from physical presence:

What strikes me about locative media today is the weakness of connection to what is actually present….Our devices may always be connected to the internet, but they are rarely aware of each other or connected directly with technology embedded in the environment…. A Four Square check-in is the digital equivalent of an “I was here” graffiti tag. It establishes territory, but does it connect you more deeply to a place?

Anybody who walks into a wifi café or observes the number of Blackberries & iPhones amusing people on a public bus can tell you that here ain’t what it used to be. We’re getting used to e-mail, texts and tweets that ensure our colleagues, friends and lovers are always at least a little distracted — whether in the boardroom or the bedroom. “Locative” applications that tie our virtual presence to our geographic presence only ensure, as King points out, that we are always a little bit absent.

But focusing on how our mobile devices take us out of where we are ignores how they take us out of where we were. I remember what it was like to move to Vancouver, almost 13 years ago, while working for a Toronto-based company; for the first 6 months I stayed conscientiously within the 4 walls of my home office until it got to be 6 pm, Toronto time. It was a recipe for isolation, depression and borderline agoraphobia. Then I got a cell phone and a laptop, and gave myself permission to work from cafés or just to go out for a walk! My office could still reach me, and I could re-enter the world.

More recently, my husband and I braved our first serious travel with kids…and iPhones/iPads. We were daunted by the prospect of Paris with a 4- and 6-year-old, and 12 hours into wicked jetlag, we struggled to keep the kids awake. Then we settled into a café, and handed them our iPads: they stayed happily gaming and awake until it was bedtime in their new time zone. That hour of iPhone gaming might not have been as present as an hour of strolling by the Seine, but it was key to a transition that let them (and us!) settle into Paris much faster than if we’d had to endure another hour of tearful pleas to go to sleep.

And those are just the extremes. Think about all the little restaurants you’ve discovered because they popped up as nearby on Yelp, the events you’ve attended because they were tweeted with your city’s hashtag, the beaches or neighborhoods or cities you’ve discovered because you read about them on somebody’s blog. Social media pulls us off out of our chairs and out into the streets because it’s a constant stream of tidbits that act as teasers for the world outside.

Chances are, a good number of those tidbits were added to Yelp or blogged or tweeted by someone sitting in a café, touching their smartphone instead of being “present”. Instead of scorning, pitying or worrying about our culture’s shift away from 100% attention to the present place and moment — a kind of presence that was pretty rare even before smartphones, by the way — maybe we can start embracing a new way of looking at where we are at any given moment. Partly here, with the friends who are sitting close by…and partly floating in the ether, calling our other friends to come out and play.