They show us how to get around a city and where to eat. They tell us how many feet are in a kilometer and which berry has the most fiber (it’s raspberries by the way). They give us updates on everything from the presidential race to what a co-worker is watching tonight. They advise us on what to do about a rash and they entertain us when we have to actually wait in line to talk to actual people.
I am not hippie nor am I going Amish. I’m not a curmudgeon that preaches about going back to the ‘good ole days’ (I’m only 31). I do however want to talk about these fantastic devices that most of us carry around every day. A device so commonplace, using it while on a first date is not only excusable but even constructively beneficial. Yet, just 10 years ago, not a single person on the planet took out their smartphone while eating dinner with friends or family.
The modern day smartphone is a portal into the vast amount of knowledge that makes up the physical world. The benefits are profound and penetrate deeply throughout our society. With its power in our hands and pockets, we can access nearly anything, anywhere, anytime we want. A quick view of the streets of Barcelona or the inside of that new downtown bar; both are just a few clicks away. It is the digital pocket knife that enables us to shave time off of our tasks and cut in line at our favorite Starbucks. But are they screwing us over at the same time?
In ways I think they are. We find ourselves splitting our attention between those right next to us and others elsewhere at the same time. We navigate cities by looking down at a screen instead of the sites around us. We ignore our neighbors when we find ourselves together on a bus, subway or plane, using our phones as a scapegoat to avoid any human interaction. Our children grow up watching their parents stay glued to a screen and think it is normal. Sometimes, frighteningly young kids are given these devices as a way to control them. Just think, an entire generation raised and taught on an iPad!
More than anything I want to stress the level of addiction that goes along with mobile devices. Strong but in such a covert way that many people do not even consider it. Personally, I am attached to my smartphone. 2013 was when I got my first (I was late to the game) and I felt it change me; physically and mentally. My time became so easily filled by this new device. It became automatic, pulling it out at even the slightest curiosity or even just to pass time. I vaguely remember confessing to my brother how crazy the change was.
I found myself staring at it until I became sleepy. Then, checking my notifications before my eyes were even fully open. It would help me decide what to do about lunch. I would refute a movie my girlfriend picked out based on reviews I read on a website. It began making daily recommendations for my news articles, books, games, bed sheets and bike parts. Sometimes it seemed to be dictating my entire life. Throughout the day I would pull it out just to see if something new had happened. No sound or vibration; just an itch to check. I would tap on a blank screen from muscle memory alone. Does any of this sound familiar?
The reason the smartphone is so successful is due to the immediate and ‘smart’ satisfaction it doles out; it’s ability to do this is constant. It’s easy and convenient and it appeals to our basic needs and desires. It also meets our vulnerabilities. We don’t complain. But when I step back and look at the cultural ‘us’, sometimes I fear that we use these devices to replace our real life companions and maybe even our real life brains. Then when you consider that large corporations can control and filter what you see, the evolution of the mobile device could potentially trend into sinister realms.
I’m not really saying to abandon technology altogether. I’m not really saying to take a step backwards at all. More of a step sideways. To deny its continued existence is akin to a virtual level of self-exile. But that is exactly what the smartphone world is: virtual. It is a window from the physical world into the virtual. The transition of the smartphone into our daily culture has happened so fast that I think many of us have not created a productive awareness to its existence. It is this awareness and respect that I think can help to create a sustainable relationship with this new technology.
The newest generation of humans, born at the turn of the century and beyond, will only know a life with unlimited access to this virtual world.
Yes, widespread use of the internet began decades ago, but only relatively recently have we been able to carry the internet with us. And that is why it is important to take a step away and gain some perspective on where this fits in. Newer generations will not truly understand what life is like without the instant gratification the internet lends us. It would be doing them a great disservice to not teach them that perspective. As these worlds bleed together, like they already have, it becomes more critical to consider our relationship between them.
Between the virtual world and the physical world lies the modern human being. This fact must always be kept in perspective as technological advancements continue to infiltrate our daily lives. I don’t want to get too deep into this consideration, as it goes well beyond the scope of my purpose, and instead ask you to think about how it affects your own life.
While the virtual is instrumental to the advancement of our civilization, the physical is essential in our ability to sustain it.
So I want to challenge those of you reading this that fit the archetype of the daily smartphone-wielding citizen. I understand that some of us severely depend on it for work or school. We need it to check our email or take a math quiz; pay our bills or purchase a Christmas gift. But this is the dependence that I want to illuminate. Find a day, any day, where your device stays at home. I don’t mean everyday. I don’t even mean once a week. Get the most pressing things done and then forget it. Walk through the world and notice how often that itch to use it comes out; how often you seem dependent on it. Then, notice how you get by without it.
In doing this, try to create an awareness on what happens. The goal is not to learn to live without your smartphone, but to learn how to live with it. There are so many great things right around us and it’s easy to forget that when we are seduced by these devices. Realizing what it is good for and what it is not can be easier to perceive when we take an occasional step back.
“We deserve better. When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better.”
-Sherry Turkle from Alone Together
For great tips, check out this blog.