In Bars, Phones vs. Humans (or the Feather-Light Slice of Life Column You’ve Missed Ever Since Your Local Newspaper Closed Down)

People on Phones

“Well, I had the amber sour and it’s pretty good.”

A guy seated by himself at the bar put his phone down and looked up through his nerdy glasses, offering a for-what-it’s-worth tip to help me decide between the Cleansing Ale and Forester Bitter Amber Ale, two sours from Tasmanian craft brewery Two Metre Tall. We were at Bitter Phew, one of my favorite craft bars in Sydney, and though I knew I’d drink both beers before the night ended, I appreciated the tip.

The beer was fine, but what I remember most about that recent visit isn’t the beer — it’s shooting the shit with that guy at the bar who liked the amber sour. Over about an hour or so I learned he was an academic from Sheffield, UK, visiting Sydney for a week or so to work on a collaborative project aimed at putting honey bee brains in robots.

That’s a horrible simplification of his work, but it was fascinating hearing him talk about it. At one point, when I asked him why honey bees, he said that whereas human brains have around 23 billion neocortical neurons, bees only have around 1 million — he paused to let that sink in, though it sounded about right — then explained why, in addition to their relatively manageable neuron count, bees are ideal for AI.

He made this all sound not just realistic but likely, and without prompt swore he’d never sell his research to a military; it was like having a conversation with the real-life Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson. If things do spiral out of control, Skynet style, at least I know to where and to which point in time I can time-travel to stop it from happening.

I often travel alone, which means I’m often out eating and drinking alone. The first thing I usually do on such occasions is check for free Wi-Fi, and if it’s there, I tend to spend the visit with face buried in screen, looking normal, because that’s what normal people do when they’re out alone: they stare at the screen.

“Hey, everybody, don’t mind me! Just a normal dude here–not a pedo, or a swinger, or a murderer, nothing like that! See, I’m looking at my phone!”

At the risk of sounding like that crotchety old crank at your local newspaper (if you still have one) who muses about “the old days” and such things in the “Slice of Life” section, I’m having trouble remembering what, exactly, we did in bars, when we were alone, before the advent of the pocket-sized computer.

I guess we sidled up to the bar counter and shot the shit with the bartender, if he or she was having it, and I guess we still do that, though probably not as much as we once did. Maybe thumbed through a magazine if they were stacked in the corner. One thing we used to do, for sure, was bullshit with other random people, and that’s something I think our phones and the increasing prevalence of Wi-Fi is killing.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a particularly talkative, outgoing, outwardly socialable person suffering from incurable diarrhea of the mouth. (I already told you that I’m not a pedo, murderer, or swinger, so don’t worry.) The general public is generally a terrifying lot that I’d rather avoid. Without saying a word, I make it clear to whomever is seated next to me on flights that, while I will be a pleasant person to deal with for however long we’re stuck rubbing shoulders and sharing armrests, I am not that person who’ll dump out their life story, or who wants to hear yours.


It’s starting to feeling a little weird out there, in certain situations, in certain places, when everybody has faces constantly buried in phones. Sure, the screen is often a fine distraction, like when you, I don’t know, notice the pedo in the corner staring at the family seated next to you and want to pretend it’s not happening.

Wayward Brewing Co

However, when I’m somewhere like a brewery or a craft beer bar, or any place where there’s likely a few shared common interests among the people there, I usually have good experiences when I put the phone down, get over it, and do some old-school bullshitting over a few beers with other lonesome folks. It can be awkward at first, at least for me and particularly as a guy (Is he trying to pick me up? Is he stalking me? Is he gay?), but I’m finding that beers with a temporary friend are a lot more enjoyable than beers with the life force I carry around in my pocket.

On that same trip to Sydney, at Wayward Brewing Company’s taproom (above) I ended up having a nice chat with a woman sitting right next to me. We both had faces buried in screens, which just struck me as completely absurd, so I broke the ice by saying as much and introducing myself. She laughed and agreed.

We talked for 45 minutes or so, during which I learned she worked in a beer bottle shop in Newcastle, and had traveled to Sydney to attend a few beer festivals that weekend. I learned a little about Newcastle, about its beer scene, and about how at least one person from Newcastle views Sydney and other major Australian cities. At closing time she invited me to hop into her Uber since we were both heading to the CBD, where we said goodbye probably forever.

At Beer DeLuxe — same situation as Wayward Brewing Co — I ended up talking with some girl who was in Sydney visiting family and at the bar to escape the family. We talked about Dillinger Escape Plan, and made fun of all the “beautiful” lads and lassies who turn King’s Wharf into a human meat market every weekend night.

Good times, and better than muttering into the screen about the meat market.

Interacting with your screen is easy when you’re traveling and going out alone. It’s normal to do so, but then khaki dockers with tucked-in polos are normal, too, and that’s something you should never do.It’s fine sometimes, burying face in screen, and a functional way of warding off undesirables, be they stalkers or everyday evangelicals. But, it’s a bad habit, and I’m planning to break it more often.

After all, in the words of Ferris Bueller, “life moves pretty fast–if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” Also, conscious robots with bee brains are going to kill us all very soon.


Lead photo courtesy of and credited to Flickr user Karen.

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