The Power and Paralysis in the Smartphone

The power of smartphones and computers? It’s not in their processors, it’s in your brain. Use it!

IT (information technology) had already been talked about as a revolution when it mainly just meant computerization of offices. Then came the home PC. Then, the ICT (information and communication technology) revolution, with the rise of the internet and mobile phones. Now, the pinnacle seems to be the smartphone, with potential future shifts to ‘smart glasses’ on the horizon.

It’s become popular to go smartphone bashing, metaphorically: to argue that this information and communication device is actually best at making us less smart and less social.

Indeed, we are cheating ourselves. “We expect more from technology and less from each other.” (Sherry Turkle)
We are giving up ever more on the messiness of life and looking for virtual, technological, perfection instead.

no-need-to-fear-a-zombie-apocalypseThe zombie apocalypse is here, as the “photomeme” goes.
Everyone’s even walking down the street glued to their screens.
Sitting together in a café, but not giving attention to their opposite, constantly checking their phones for fear of missing out on the next interesting update.
Connected to the virtual ghosts of other people far away by means of a few scarce thoughts and button-presses, but hardly in the places and times inhabited as a body and a total person.

Getting used to not delving into knowledge and integrating it, digging deep, but jumping between items that have been drawing attention, skimming over the surface, without even giving a single one of them the full attention before the next one distracts, Nicholas Carr argues that we are in The Shallows.

Wikipedia facts instead of personal knowledge. 3D printers and online customization instead of skills, with hands and in-person.
Being connected instead of really being there.
Trying desperately to perfect life through apps even when there’s no app for that, but only the better performance of the life well-lived.

Then again, it’s just too easy and lazy to just complain and notice the new oddities, once made aware of them.

Of course, there is also the connection, to other people and their thoughts and opinions as well as to sources of information (and entertainment) that is thus provided.
Yes, there are good sides to social networking and all that. Great sides, in fact. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing here and now, the way I am.
And no, I do not even believe that the way forward is to turn them off and avoid their use.

A “digital detox” isn’t going to magically remove a techno-distraction you’ve (got) pulled over your true self, and its removal isn’t going to somehow make you authentically nothing but you. Unplug all you want, but you’re more than that.
Not quite being there in an experience because your inner running commentary is turning it all into potential status updates might well take away from the experience, but the digital connection and self-presentation may also add another layer of life and another tool for personal development.

In fact, that simplistic approach seeing disconnection as easy solution is another one of those ways of not quite living in the (contemporary) world, of avoiding learning and the acquisition and proper use of skills.

The meta-skill we are in need of, especially in the onslaught of distractions, may be to turn things off – but in the way of self-control and proper allocation of our time, knowing when it’s time for Facebook or Twitter, and when it’s time to leave social networks alone and actually be a physical social being, in the moment, without even a thought of tweeting. (Getting intimate, for example: *not* the proper time for the cellphone – let alone a status update.)

It is the hardest thing.

Much easier to just leave it all turned on, jump at the chime that announces a new interaction like a Pawlowian dog salivating at the ring of a bell, or to decry it all, call for a new temperance that would love an outright prohibition, but can’t really resist, anyways.
We are more than animals that can be shaped by operant conditioning, though. Or at least, we can be, if we make ourselves so, learning different habits that serve us better.

Turn the notifications off (or at least to silent so that they don’t interrupt but show news when looking for them), put the phone away, set times for uninterrupted work… and times for play without the irruption of work. Decide how you will use your devices and when, and if a notebook is for work and study, don’t even put games on it. (Such separation is, perhaps, the one missing “feature” nowadays, with all the integration into single devices…)

These – and there are lots of ideas like that, it is “only” a matter of picking principles and living them in practice – are ways of re-discovering personal agency, in the real world, with both the virtual and the actual, the seemingly (and in some ways, really) empowering high-tech and the, all too often forgotten, high-touch.

If need be, at the touch of a button. The one saying “off.” It’s not a miracle solution, though.

One Comment

  1. […] Using timebanks and the like to achieve a seemingly fair and proper balance of who has contributed how much merely replaces money and purchases with notes of time and usage. The technological infrastructure enabling it is still based on current capitalism and may not be able to free itself from it (though this remains to be seen and shouldn’t keep anyone from trying). More importantly, the guiding ideology, even if formulated as newly communal and anti-consumptive, is still rampantly individualistic and asocial. Like so many a recent tech-trend, it is fundamentally built on how we “expect more from technology and less from each other” (Sherry Turkle), to the point of wanting technological control over social relationships. […]

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