We are spoilt with a seemingly endless list of conveniences in our everyday lives; everything from voice activated digital assistants and car-hailing applications in the palm of our hands to high-speed wireless internet streaming high-fidelity video even in remote corners of the world. With furniture purchases aided by augmented reality on the cusp of broader adoption, we are witnessing the erosion of an already thinning line between the virtual and material worlds. Even more impressive is the fact that this soup of technological miracles is served up by a rather unremarkable, solid, rectangular touch-sensitive device encased, most often, in glass and metal. As nearly a third of world is already hooked on to it, my literal, if somewhat vague, description the smartphone is patently obvious to most. To say that this electronic device has transformed the world is an understatement. Perhaps “hijacked” would be closer to the truth.
This success story of cutting edge technology at our fingertips however conceals a terrifying reality beneath the surface. While most of the world is concerned about the potential of these devices as powerful surveillance mechanisms and the privacy implications surrounding aggregation of personal data at scale, there is the more serious problem of these devices monopolizing our very minds. This problem is not some theoretical possibility but a simple and accurate description of the reality of the last few years. With recent advances in machine learning, digital recommendation systems that suggest the next video to watch, news article to read, or internet celebrity to follow, have become very good at holding our attention for extended periods of time using precise knowledge of our interests. As we continue to collectively gaze and prod at our screens all across the globe, our unrelenting use of these devices seems poised to take us to a terminal state of optimal and continual consumption where our minds can be entranced into passivity.
It isn’t simply that social media is a factor; the root problem is that the smartphone tends to the needs of the creators before the user, in the absence of a fiduciary responsibility. As an electronic device housing tens of millions of lines of code written by thousands of engineers, often with the sole aim of optimizing metrics measuring on-device engagement, the smartphone is really a technological beast whose power on the mind should not be underestimated. It is like an artificially engineered six hundred thousand pound gorilla trying to pass off as a helpful butler. Any hope of controlling this beast is quashed from the outset because the OS and applications running on it are often either impossible or extremely difficult to modify to suit the needs and workflows of a typical user.
Companies owning the software powering these devices are free to change aspects of the smartphone to suit their needs and they have made full use of such opportunities through regular software updates. The result is that users have been slowly but effectively shepherded into greater and greater quantities of passive consumption. We now have billions of people across the world whose attention is being constantly splintered and whose capacity for strategic thinking is being crushed by these devices. This is a classic example of the pithy adage: what you don’t control ends up controlling you.
The real way out, i.e., to take control of the technology you use and reclaim your mind in the process, is to acknowledge that the smartphone in its present form, running stock versions of proprietary closed source software is a dangerous thing to be handed to people who have no hope of controlling it, and therefore relinquish it altogether. Or drastically reevaluate its necessity and usage in everyday life.
The decision to not use a smartphone at present levels of engagement can only be revisited if and when the time comes when users are equal partners in mediating their relationship with technology. Today that is not the case, so don’t use the smartphone, because you clearly do not control it, and most likely do not even understand it.
For the moment I am the proud user of a Nokia 105, which can make calls, send SMS messages, and can even function as a rudimentary flash light! My only inconveniences with this phone are that it takes a bit longer to type, and that it cannot run Spotify or Google Maps. But there are simple workarounds to all these problems, and in return I enjoy a clearer, and thoughtful mind in the absence of the constant background chatter of a smartphone, channeling my time and attention in far more productive ways.
I am hardly the first person to sound the alarm on these devices. In a short YouTube interview, Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, elaborates on this race to the bottom of the brain stem, and Cal Newport has a good Ted Talk on why you should quit social media, with the caveat that he basically conflates social media with the predominant mode of social media use i.e., smartphones, and so it is relevant here. I also recommend reading the brilliant long form essay by Christine Rosen on this topic. Finally, one of my favorite thinkers, Jonathan Zittrain, talks about the fiduciary responsibility that I alluded to earlier in his brilliant lecture “Love the Processor, Hate the Process“.
If this short article did not convince you to stop using your smartphone altogether, then at the very least I hope it gave you pause to reconsider how you use it. Remember that the smartphone like any other product is only useful inasmuch as the conveniences and benefits it bestows are outweighed by its drawbacks.