How Not to Write About Smartphones and Spain

"Comunicando" (Communicating). Madrid, Spain. Photo by Flickr user FXW. CC BY-SA 2.0

“Comunicando” (Communicating). Madrid, Spain. Photo by Flickr user FXW. CC BY-SA 2.0

While doing a spot of fact-checking on a Global Voices story the other day, I found myself scrolling through the profile of media mogul and personal source of accent envy, Arianna Huffington. As I browsed through the Huffington Post editor-in-chief’s feed, a recent tweet about Spain, where I've set up shop for the past few years, caught my eye. “Why nobody in Spain is talking about smartphone addiction—they're talking to each other instead,” it romantically declared.

It’s not often that I speak in Internet, but an incredulous O RLY? escaped my lips. The tweet linked to a column in Pacific Standard magazine, which covers social, economic and political issues in the United States, asserting that “the biggest difference” between how Americans and Spaniards use technology is “that no one seems to be on their phones” in Spain. “What locals were doing instead was talking to each other, loudly and heatedly, continuously,” the Brooklyn-based author writes, his observations based on a trip through Spain and Portugal. “It struck me as the kind of socializing we desire when we bemoan our smartphone ‘addictions.’”

To me, the piece almost read like a satire of a Western correspondent parachuting into an “exotic” locale and reporting back sweeping generalizations about the place. It portrayed Spain—still known to many as the land of the midday siesta, even though only about 16% of the population still take a nap every day—and greater Europe as some sort of 21st-century noble savage, in tune with the natural art of conversation and uncorrupted by the same technology that is turning Americans into bleary-eyed zombies.

But when it comes to technology and smartphone addiction, that's not the case. “Nobody over there seems to be talking about addiction to technology,” you say? Sure, if you don’t pay any attention to Spanish media and haven’t spent more than a holiday’s worth of time with Spaniards, you could say that. A quick Google search returns more than a few mainstream discussions of the issue (in Spanish, of course).

Spain is said to have the highest rate of young people addicted to smartphones in Europe. Turns out more than half of Spaniards have an irrational fear of leaving home without their phone. For people 18 to 24 years old, the number rises to 75%. According to one survey, 40% of people between 18 and 30 years old in Spain say they couldn't live without their smartphone.

Spaniards, who rank fourth in the world when it comes to use of messaging platform WhatsApp, are connected to an average of 2.9 devices, one of the highest rates worldwide. Last year, two Spaniards created an app called FaceUp, specifically to stem smartphone addiction. Last month, “Smartphones,” a play written by a US-based Spaniard about the ways the titular technology has changed human relationships, opened in Madrid.

Not to mention the countless times I've casually seen parents chiding their children (and vice versa!) to put the smartphone away at the dinner table, or friends at a bar scrolling through Facebook photos on a smartphone.

Does this mean Spain is actually some sort of technology-addicted wasteland? Absolutely not. Spain is a land brimming with warmth, passion, charm and culture, and I adore living here. So if I love Spain so much, why take the time to dismantle this false, albeit rosy characterization?

Because articles like the one mentioned above betray a certain journalistic arrogance, and a lack of humility in which the conclusions lead us to the facts, not the other way around. Readers are told authoritatively what an entire country or even continent is all about, based not on in-depth experience or research, but on some wistful notion and a few superficial observations.

A good journalist or traveler leaves the broad brush at home. They’re open-minded and careful with their judgments. They're eager to learn and observe the so-called good along with the so-called bad. It’s the difference between the childhood crush whom you idealized from afar and the adult partner whom you love deeply, even if their habit of slurping soup drives you a little nuts.

Like the rest of the world, Spain isn't perfect. It may struggle to turn off its smartphone just like the US does, and it may slurp its gazpacho every now and then, but that's all part of what makes Spain—the real-world Spain, not the technology-free fantasy—such a lovely, quirky and complex place.

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