I am sure that most of us have seen the humorous meme which says it’s no use fearing a coming zombie apocalypse when you are already one yourself, as it shows a bunch of people walking down the street while staring down at their smart phones.  Of course behind its satyrical gibe, is a visual truth that all of us have witness or worse, have been witnessed doing.  As someone who spent more than his fair share of time glued to a television screen as a youth, I was willing to chalk such mannerisms up as being the current generational “thing” that the young would eventually outgrow.  Unfortunately, this is not what seems to be happening, as the generation that has never known a time without the internet has reached adulthood and is either raising or being followed by a generation that has never known a time without smart phones and tablets.  This new generation of what author Nicholas Kardaras calls in his book of the same title “Glow Kids” (How Screen Addiction is Hijacking Our Kids and How to Break the Trance), are now spending so much more time than their predecessors staring at a screen that physicians are seeing an increase in a spinal condition they have termed “Text” or “Screen” neck.

However, it wasn’t until I actually decided to check out a book cited in a talk given by Ascension Presents’ Fr. Mike Schmitz about living a more deliberate life, that I was able to fully appreciate how close the zombie apocalypse meme was to reality in a way that went beyond bad posture.

Drowning in the Shallows

In his book The Shallows- What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr spends the first part of the book writing about the history of the transmission of information from oral, to written, and now virtual, and how it has affected our thought processes.  He explains how the eidetic memories of those raised in an oral culture, were able to be preserved and reflected upon in ways that had not previously been possible, until they were written down.  However, Carr believes that despite having access to more information than in any other time in history, we seem to be losing our ability to retain, make sense of, or gain any wisdom from our ever-increasing knowledge because of the virtual manner of its transmission.

The rest of the book then goes onto show how over two decades of empirical studies have, with few exceptions, pointed to the fact that our overuse of the internet has negatively affected our cognitive processes, even to the point of stunting physical neural growth in some cases.  Carr sums up the problem by reflecting,

“What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

In this way, where once we yearned to explore and contemplate the depths of our humanity, the modern mind of far too many has been conditioned, both physically and mentally, to be content with skimming through the “shallows” of life without giving it much thought.

The Window of Our Discontent

The accumulated data contained within Carr’s and others books I’ve read have had an enlightening effect on the way I now view certain aspects of contemporary culture.  Suddenly phenomena such as Facebook depression or envy, the hyper-partisan and cantankerous behavior that passes for public discourse these days, and the truncated reading, writing, speaking, and (most importantly) thinking abilities of huge chunks of our culture (both on and off-line) all began to make sense.  Our overuse of or attachment to the internet is, if not responsible for many of the aforementioned pathologies, now its prime disseminator.

And for better or worse, smartphones are now the dominant means by which people access the internet and thus is how these pathologies find their way into our lives.  They have become what Irish vlogger Dave Cullen calls “Your Ego in My Hand”, whereby people participate in a kind of dysfunctional symbiotic relationship dedicated to their mutually assured distraction.  On one side you have people who use their smartphones to write, direct, and star in their own reality shows on social media by arranging words and pictures into a manufactured narrative about their lives, which are meant to elicit a prescribed set of responses from others.  And on the other side you have people who practice what I call a kind of techno-occultism in which their smartphones act as modern day scrying devices, with which they peer into the depths of cyberspace.  A “space” which in a weird sort of way has become a kind of man-made mock-up of the spiritual world, especially in terms of the connotations associated with the so-called “Deep Web.” There people attempt to mine it’s depths for some kind of knowledge or insight which they apparently feel is unavailable in the world around them.

Furthermore, lest you think that such quirky behavior is merely a facet of popular culture that you would never waste your time with, think again.  Our over-reliance on the internet via our smartphones has created its own set of problems among professionals as well.  The primary one is how the ease and availability of accessing so much information, has raised the bar in many professions in what is expected of its employees.  What was once considered a worker going above and beyond their normal duties, has now become an expected part of the job.  All too often this results, especially among younger workers who are desperately trying to establish their professional bonafides, in a blurring of the lines between work and leisure.  The time that one spent decompressing from work, either at home or during their commutes, is all too often interrupted by the constant flashes, dings, or rings emanating from their smartphone as their work dominates more and more of their lives. So much so, that there is now a term for the burnout young adults are experiencing as a result of being overworked but whose talents and education remain underutilized : the quarter-life crisis.

This fact was poignantly displayed to me one Sunday afternoon while waiting for a haircut. I watched as this young 20-something lost his place in line three times, because he was polite enough to go outside whenever he talked on his phone. He looked at me sheepishly and said, “Work.”  I smiled at him and thought how the belt clip he wore for his phone should really be around his ankle, as I sardonically pictured him as an imprisoned guy on a monitored weekend furlough.  But then I began to thought about my own smartphone habits and whether or not someone would say the same about me or anyone of us.

Dumbing Down…

Now I can already see the comments below about how a smartphone is, like any other inanimate object, only as “good” or “bad” as the person using it. While I whole-heartedly agree with that idea, in this specific case I would be more cautious in asserting it.  According to former Google insider Tristan Harris, at the same time Google, and the libertarian-minded Silicon Valley as whole, felt it was the user’s responsibility to manage their internet use, they nevertheless made the decision to win what he called the “race to the brain stem.”  Unwilling to relinquish any portion of their market dominance, they deliberately designed programs which bypassed the brain’s higher functioning centers and instead targeted its success and reward mechanisms.  Hence, when you use a smartphone, you are using a device that has been tweaked and refined for the last two decades to not be put down.

So does all this mean we should get rid of our smartphones?  Should we join the small but growing “Dumbphone” movement which author Cal Newport mentions in his book Deep Work and which I did for 30 days while researching this article?  The answer to that question will of course depend on a person’s temperament, but in the end I think it is an incomplete solution for three reasons.

First of all, as sociologist Juliet Schor once quipped, “If it is true that necessity is the mother of invention, then it is equally true that inventions are the mother of necessity.”  So while you might satisfy your need to simplify your life by using a dumbphone, you may find it harder to stay afloat in a world that is currently and will continue to be built around smartphone usage.  From my own experience, I found that during my 30 day smartphone fast, I would sometimes spent more time online, since I had to cram in all the things I couldn’t take care of during breaks in my day, on my laptop at home after work.

Second of all, while I think there is something to be said about practicing a kind of Distributionism with the various gadgets in our lives where for obvious reasons we avoid becoming dependent on a single device, this too has its own set of disadvantages. So for instance, I know people who will not use the music app on their smartphone and instead use a separate MP3 player during their workouts, so as not to be tempted to use or even think about their phone.  In my case though, I found it an absolute burden to have to carry around my dumbphone to receive calls, as well my decommissioned iPhone so I could listen to podcasts or take pictures.

Finally, although your smartphone has indeed been designed to never leave your side, it is also hard to ignore what a marvel of the modern age it is.  The very notion that you can carry around a phone, a calculator, a calendar, a camera, a video and music library, a GPS device, a weather forecaster, a whole host of books such as complete desk reference set, novels, or the Bible, and yes even a bunch of arcade games, all in your pocket is nothing to scoff at.

With all that in mind, is it possible to find some sort of via media between being at a disadvantage by not having one and the dopamine induced, bent-neck, and cell-shocked existence which afflicts far too many people today?

…Or Smartening Up

What is missing in this whole conversation is the same issue which is routinely skirted in a lot of areas in our contemporary culture, and that is the issue of personal agency. Humans have always created tools to shape and master the world around them, and the smartphone is no exception. However, when it comes to our culture’s over-attachment to them, I think there are two issues which are proving to be stumbling blocks to us being the user versus being used.

The first issue is basically the bane of the ever-lengthening span of the adolescent mindset that has been a malignancy on men and women alike for quite awhile now, and which has been written about many times on this site.  This means that what is in fact a very powerful tool with which you can improve your work, more often than not just ends up being the ultimate novelty gadget which, like a jealous little god of metal and silicon, demands all of our attention in exchange for whatever comfort it gives us.

However, what I see as the primary problem as to why people are so enthralled with staring at their screens, is that in the our materialist and secular zeitgeist we are attempting to use our smartphones as tools to shape the world inside of us.  Perhaps, living as we do, in a world where so many of life’s rough edges have been smoothed over, it is only natural that in our complacency we would turn inward to find new problems to fix.  The problem then is that while it is one thing to use technology to aid in routine physical and mental operations, it is another thing entirely to try and quantify or configure the habits of our hearts, let alone all the other rational operations of our immortal soul, as many a modern Technocrat has no qualms about doing.

And yet, as MIT professor and author of Alone Together, Sherry Turkle has stated, this is precisely what is happening,

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies and today there is no coyness about is aspirations to substitute life on the screen with the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities.”

Thus in the end, the solution to our culture’s infatuation with smartphones is not going to be found in the device or any sort of app for it, because as duplicitous as Google and Silicon Valley are about this issue, they are in the end, correct.  The problem is not with the smartphone, it is with you.  It is about you dealing with the “vulnerabilities” which, for one reason or another, Turkle says affect us more poignantly today than in previous generations.  It is your own inability to deal with our own failing or weaknesses in life, that is at the root of why people allow themselves to become mere variables in someone else’s marketing strategy.

Recalibrating Your Bearings

I will end this article by going back the talk which cited the book which formed the impetus to write this article in the first place. In talking to a group of young people, Fr. Mike Schmitz makes what is a very simple but which is unfortunately in today’s climate, a seemingly profound statement…

“The reality is, in this day and age, you are more in control of your intake than any other generation. You are more in control of what you receive, the kind of data receive, your access to the internet, your access to the media, you are more in control of anyone else…. if you want, you can take control over how you think, how you feel, and over who you are.”

Thus just as we customize our music playlists with Spotify or our movie watching with Netflix, it is up to us to apply that same sort personal attention to our own lives and to engage in our own refining and re-tweaking.  Of course, for those of us who take our Christian faith seriously, this is something that all of us should already be well-acquainted with, in terms of having a balanced life with prayer, study, exercise,work, and family. But if you need a refresher, a good place to start is this site’s “A Man’s 11-point Checklist for a Good Life” which is on the homepage.

This is not to say that the various tips and tricks out there to manage you smartphone use, such as using email prioritizing apps, turning off notifications, removing social media apps, or turning your phone off on Sundays, are not helpful things to do.  They are.  But none of those things will do any good unless your internal bearings are calibrated correctly.  Smartphone manufacturers spend billions of dollars to ensure brand loyalty by using our natural love of gadgets to hook us in, and the software industry creates programs and apps which keep us there.  But as Christians, we already have a brand name to which we are loyal, and which many of us wear its logo everyday.  A name which is not some abstract principle or an inanimate object but a person.  A person who affords us the grace to meet all of our needs, wants, and “vulnerabilities.”  This is our starting point, this is the perspective from which we should view and use the tools in our lives, but especially our smartphones.