Several of my Facebook friends have posted this eerie, surreal series of photos in which smartphones have been removed from people’s hands. It shows people of all ages staring down at their empty palms in gestures that become filled with despair when there is no device to fill the void. It depicts groups of friends, lovers at a cabin, parents and children at the dinner table, all together-yet-alone, immersed in isolated, individual worlds.
And last night had to be one of the saddest smartphone abuses I’ve ever seen. Tim and I went to see Antigone, a play I used to love teaching to sophomores. The production was absolute perfection–the contextualizing of the play, the lights, the costumes, and above all the acting, were spot on. I cried three times, and I felt like when I wasn’t crying, I was holding my breath. It was that good. Unfortunately, the woman in front of me didn’t get to experience it, because she was on her phone for most of the performance. The thing is, I don’t think she wanted to be on it. She turned it off when the play first started. But then during a longer monologue, she turned it back on. As the play progressed, she checked it with increasing frequency until she was lost in it. As hard as she had tried, she simply couldn’t help herself. It was like watching a heroin addict finally give in and shoot up.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about smartphones this week. While it’s easy to blame the technology, there are definitely some deeper root issues that would still be present even if we didn’t have the phones. And there are certainly LOTS of upsides to them. Every day, I can stay in my warm house until just before the bus arrives by watching its progression on an app. I can pull up to a grocery store and get instantly notified of what’s on sale (and get coupons!). I can review Italian grammar at the doctor’s office. I can stand outside a restaurant and check its reviews on Yelp before I go in. It is so easy now to get directions, make payments, look up important info, and meet people.
The smartphone is one of the greatest inventions of the last decade. Although it can enable technology addictions because it’s so portable, it isn’t the enemy. It’s our addiction that’s the problem.
So here are the 5 things the bother me most about smartphone addiction:
- We’re losing our capacity to handle boredom. I worry that many of us are choosing to fill our lives with constant noise and input, and not just with smartphones–with other high-tech devices as well. The problem is that when our lives are a constant stream mediocre input, our capacity for quality output is seriously diminished. Smartphones can potentially rob us of those quiet spaces that can be the most reflective, mentally productive moments of our day.
- We’re hurting our relationships. The lesson of Eric Pickersgill’s photos is that for many smartphone users, real life relationships suffer when we choose to be emotionally absent through our phones. We are missing conversations, missing face-to-face interactions, missing out on giving people our full, genuine emotional presence. Maybe that’s part of the draw. Maybe smartphones make us feel safer by diminishing the risk of being truly present. If I don’t have my phone and you ignore me, I have to deal with that rejection. If I have my phone and you ignore me, no problem, I have something just as good right here. But risk is an essential part of healthy relationships.
- We’re missing out on real life. Often we’re so busy crafting the perfect posts and photo captions for the events we attend, it’s almost like we’re not really attending the events. As Aunt Carolyn says, “we didn’t actually have the event or party or excursions, we just pretended to have it in order to get pictures that we could then look at and remember the pretend event.”
- Our attention spans are getting shorter. My poor students. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder for them to read long texts, and it’s especially hard for them to write long papers. Even when something truly beautiful is in front of you, like that gorgeous rendition of Antigone was in front of that woman at the theater last night, the pull of mediocre clickbait and scroll fetish is too hard to resist. Many of us no longer have the attention to give even to interesting things, let along boring things.
- We all denigrate it, but then we all do it. My use of the inclusive first person pronoun (‘we’) was intentional. Although I’ve consciously fought smartphone abuse, at times I’ve been guilty of all these things. I’m not alone in my hypocrisy. I hear people go on and on about how terrible smartphones are, how they’re destroying family life, etc., but often the loudest complainers are the worst offenders.
I’m not exactly sure what the solution is. Smartphones are certainly going to be around for a while, so learning how we can best live with them is essential. I want them to enhance and enable my real life, not become a replacement for it. Life is too beautiful and people are too important to ignore.