In defense of devices

TL;DR

If we’re using smartphones to avoid human contact, the problem isn’t smartphones. It’s us.

There’s a rising backlash against the preponderance of mobile devices in our lives. The argument goes something like this:

We’re all glued to our devices, oblivious to the exciting swirl of humanity around us. We’re focused on tiny glowing screens instead of each other’s faces.

Even smartphone manufacturers — the people fueling the adoption of mobile devices — got in on the game:

There’s an undercurrent of nostalgia for a time before all this technology.

A time when we walked down the street and smiled at each other, waving hello. At bars, we chatted with our barstool neighbors. Our children always had our undivided attention. Our dog’s ears were always scratched.

Calling bullsh*t

This, like all nostalgia, is a seductive lie, a false retelling of our own lives that casts a shadow on the present moment and makes it hard for us to see things as they really are: complex and nuanced.

Before cell phones, the same people who walk down the street today without acknowledging strangers, walked down the street without acknowledging strangers. They just did it while staring vacantly ahead. Maybe they were scowling. Maybe not.

Commuters with their newspapers, the iPhones of yesteryear

Commuters with their newspapers, the iPhones of yesteryear

At bars, we watched the TV, not each other. In the absence of a TV, we’d search for a newspaper, a magazine, a coaster — anything to stare at instead of each other.

History in layers

Strolling down the subway platform today, I see this history presented before me like layers of sedimentary rock. Older commuters stand with heads hidden behind The Times or with eyes averted at exactly the same angle it would take to check a text message, only they’re reading 50 Shades of Gray.

There are some 30-somethings, too, caught in a refined chasm between the books they grew up with and the technology that grew up with them. They’re typically reading paperbacks while white cords snake from their ears to their back pockets.

A few have given in and tap furiously on digital candy bits or virtual barbarians, their leather briefcases sandwiched between their Cole Haan loafers, tongues tucked in the corners of their mouths.

The robot within

Devices have not made us magically cold or inhuman. They’ve just given us something more enjoyable to stare at. Much of the criticism of mobile technology is a misdirected attempt to reclaim humanity from the clutches of a robot gone amuck.

But there is no robot. There‚Äôs just… us.

Removing the tech doesn’t solve any problems that didn’t already exist. Without smartphones, we’d still have to deal with the most awkward interface of all: each other.


Header photo by Helen Taylor

  • Andre

    Ha, true… oh so true! Well said!

  • Tristan

    I think deciding whether it’s a good or a bad thing depends a little on what you’re using the phone for though. Learning something new, reading something useful or interesting, listening to some great music OR pissing away your life looking at the interminable inanity of Facebook..!

  • joseph corsi

    Say you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone and they are alerted by their phone that they need to pay it attention. They pull it out of their pocket/purse and quickly glance at it while you are talking, how does that compare to a newspaper? A newspaper never suddenly said out loud ‘hey read me right now…I really need you to read me right now…like right now’ when you were talking to someone in person. It is not the idea of the device or the distraction it offers that is the problem, it is the constant interruption in our daily lives that is the problem. The blinking, vibrating, synthetic bird calls are the problem. They are a totally different kind of distraction that have a life of their own that is completely asynchronous with our human lives. This is a bigger problem in general with technology that we use in our daily lives, it has no awareness of who we are as people and how we prefer to engage with technology. Most of technology is one size fits all, we need technology tailors or operating systems with machine learning as backbone.