The Smartphone Bargain

An article by Jacob Weisberg in the New York Review of Books surveys the state of our smartphone use. The essay is called “We Are Hopelessly Hooked.” I read it with relief. At least a few people see what I see.  

A smartphone-abstainer baffled by our mass capitulation to handheld devices, I have written about this topic before (here and here, for instance), attempting to pose the plaintive question, What are we doing? Weisberg reminds us how swift and total the changeover to smartphones has been, and asks the same question. “What does it mean to shift overnight,” he asks, “from being a society in which people walk down the street looking around, to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?” He traces the answer through family life and marriage, the learning modes of children, the social development of the teenaged self, the cognitive rewiring of the contemporary brain, and the dark power of handheld devices purposefully engineered to addict. Weisberg cites the work of Sherry Turkle, an MIT social psychologist whose book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues that the communication revolution “is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners.” Weisberg continues:

The picture [Turkle] paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semi-engaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments.


Weisberg sums up Turkle’s finding that young people, absorbed in digital devices, fail to develop fully independent selves, and that near-incessant texting creates an “always on” mode of being that distorts adolescent development. He notes Turkle’s emphasis on damage to “the capacity for solitude,” which she identifies as the personal attribute that allows us “to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent.”

Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of “I share, therefore I am,” crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as “disconnection anxiety.”

What Weisberg calls “our transformation into device people” has happened almost overnight. Touch-screen iPhones are only eight years old, after all. Yet the surveys Weisberg cites reveal that three-quarters of all college- aged people reach for their phones the moment they wake in the morning. Once out of bed, they check their phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes. Female students at Baylor University report using their cell phones ten hours a day.

All of this, every bit of it, corresponds to what I see – and shake my head at – every day. In a line I enjoyed (and winced at), Weisberg notes that “today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.”  So which is me? Old age? Well, I know plenty of 55-year-olds who are deeply involved with their handhelds. Socially marginalized or eccentric? I’m a pretty centrist person in my views and my habits; I like the things that most people like me tend to like. That seems tautological, yet in my case the tautology falls apart over smartphones, because there I feel like one crying in the wilderness. I guess Weisberg leaves out another category in his typology of non-smartphone-owning Americans: those who choose not to.

But lets put that aside for the moment. The underlying issue here is the transformative nature of technology and the costs and benefits it brings. The ever-fascinating reality is that the relationship between humans and technology is a dynamic one: we invent machines to help us in our lives, and then the machines turn around and re-invent us. Everyone fixates on the first half of that transaction, but the second half – the re-creation of us – proceeds almost invisibly.

I’m the first to admit that our machines do a lot of work for us. There are plenty of labor and time saving devices I rely on and in fact celebrate. Take, for instance, my snowblower. I love my snowblower! It saves me a bunch of time and a burden of backbreaking labor. And it’s fun to use. But the snowblower is not particularly transformative, in the way I mentioned above; I don't lose anything, any capacity or fundamental part of my nature or self (aside from a quantum of muscle strength) in the process of reaping its benefits.

Other technological innovations are transformative in interesting but not-so-significant ways. I recall being at a bowling alley a few years ago when the automatic scoring system malfunctioned. Up and down the lanes you could hear perplexed people asking, “Um, does anyone know how to score a game?” People bowling with the assistance of automatic scoring had forgotten -- or never learned -- to do the math of strikes and spares themselves.

This example is both trivial and illustrative. What abilities go out the window in the bargain we make with new technologies? The bargain differs with every new technology. Most of the time, being aware of that bargain would not change our willingness to make it and adopt the device in the first place. After all, who cares about whether one knows how to score a bowling game – or shoe a horse, or use a quill pen, or read Morse Code? The history of innovation and progress is littered with outmoded and discarded skills.

But where and how to draw a line between skill and self? An article in the Times explores our reliance on GPS navigation, and what that reliance does to us and our abilities -- the way it “erodes our cognitive maps.” The article notes the amusing story of a 28-year-old American tourist who recently became something of a celebrity in Iceland for his tale of travel woe.  Arriving on his flight from New York, he got a rental car and set out for his hotel – only to commit a slight spelling error in a complicated Icelandic name he inputted into the GPS, an error that sent him driving six hours out of his way on icy roads. The article notes that although “he saw signs showing Reykjavik was in the other direction, he had put his faith in the GPS.”

I know what that’s like from my own experience. In my case, I waited as long as I could before getting a GPS for our car, following my policy of resisting new technology until either  1) some aspect of professional or personal life becomes unduly difficult without it, or 2) a technological innovation fills an already existing need in my life (as opposed to creating a new need or desire). On a trip six years ago we got a bit lost, and when none of the three gas stations I stopped at was selling a local map, I knew it was time for a GPS.

When we finally got it I was wowed by its power and convenience, and quickly came to rely on it. But there were problems. First, the GPS is not always right. I learned this the hard way in Vermont two winters ago, when it sent us up what turned out to be a long-closed mountain road, and we got stuck in snow in the middle of the woods. Soon a guy on a snowmobile came by. “I see you found your way to Garmin Nuvi Pass!” he said, chuckling. “Don’t worry, someone else will make the same mistake you did.”  And sure enough, fifteen minutes later another misdirected car came by, and pulled us out with a tow line.  

So a cautionary note attaches to the issue of the GPS’s fallibility. But the bigger issue, again, is the erosion of human skill. This time there’s a bit more at stake than the ability to score a bowling game. As soon as I started using the GPS, I knew that navigationally I was operating – myself, that is, as a human -- in a different and significantly reduced way. Outsourcing navigation to the GPS, slavishly focusing on the little screen and following its directions, meant abandoning my own long-shaped way of situating myself in the world. If I got lost, I knew I wouldn't be able to get back; I had given up the “this led to that” way of narrating a trip. Furthermore I had no overview, no felt north-south-east-west spatial or directional sense of where I was: only instructions and a tiny screen to follow. It was disconcerting. A complex cognitive capacity had been traded for the convenience of the device. And I could feel it happening. “This thing is amazing,” I said to Molly. “And it is also changing me. I'm losing something, I can feel it.”

The smartphone is this effect times ten, times fifty. What happens when the outmoded skill we’re discarding is our ability to talk with each other face to face? Or to write a complex sentence? Or to be alone with ourselves? How do we outsource a capacity for solitude? Or for love? (An excellent film of a couple of years ago, Spike Jonze’s Her, explores precisely this question.)

I’m no raving Luddite. I’m just trying to pay attention to the bargain we make with our amazing machines of convenience, the reconfiguration of the human that such bargains involve. I'm willing to exchange the benefits of the GPS for the erosion of certain abilities -- though not without at least trying to pay attention to what is being eroded. What Weisberg points out is that the transformations and erosions of smartphone use are way, way bigger.

What are we getting for al we are giving up and putting at risk? I keep waiting for the eloquent advocate who will step forward and, while acknowledging the worrisome effects that Weisberg details in his essay, will make the ringing argument that it is all worth it, that handheld devices on the whole are vastly improving our lives and improving us. Honestly, I’d be open to hearing that argument. But is anyone making it? It seems to me that in accepting the smartphone bargain, we've spent remarkably little time assessing what we’re giving up and what we’re getting in return. This lack of scrutiny is what gives our overnight transformation into device people its aspect of mass capture. The irony of the smartphone: we were smart enough to create them, but not to control them. We are living under the dominion of the smartphones, and we went with hardly a peep.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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