When people talk about merging with computers to create cyborgs, it’s not some prophecy about the year 2200. It’s happening right now. More and more of our reality exists within computers or through them.Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, Homo Deus – interview in The Guardian
Our stupid-smartphones have become something we can “use” for everything. (Their actual usefulness is questionable*.)
It’s incredible that tech companies have invented a thing that we feel we need to look at and click on 24-7. (Is there even one daily activity our stupid-smartphones hasn’t invaded?) These companies, especially social media, should want us to interact with our devices as much as possible, because that’s how they make their money. (Collecting data about us and selling it to advertisers.) That’s not cynicism or negativity, it’s just how the business works. It’s why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook dominate the stock market.
But stupid-smartphones are something we rarely need.
Instead of assuming we should be staring at them all the time, we should ask ourselves: what do we actually want to use them for? (See Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport).
For my own life, I think smartphones are almost a total waste of time and energy.
According to screen time metrics, I can easily hit 4 hours a day of usage on my dumb-ass iPhone. (I know people who go far beyond that.) That’s doing what I would innocently think of as normal, reasonable stuff: watching a YouTube video while taking a lunch break, checking my email from the toilet [super important!], texting my friends crude comments, weighing myself, listening to film scores as I go to sleep, tracking my bike rides, and becoming a helpless zombie scrolling and scrolling and scrolling through Instagram in the middle of the day without any goal.
Oh, social media. I love my unpaid part-time job, helping to train algorithms to more efficiently hide my posts.
The really stupid thing? Ask yourself this… the next day (or even the next hour) how much do you remember of all that crap you looked at? The answer for me is almost zero.
Whether it’s news or social media, will any of that disposable, anxiety-provoking content matter in a week? In a month or year? Probably not. If any of it did matter, it would be the exception, perhaps a miracle.
It occurred to me that my smartphone had pretty much become a part of my body. As if I am a god-damned cyborg, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in the above quote. If you don’t already feel like it’s inseparable from you, try leaving it in another room or even not using it for a full day. Ouch. The amputation. You can feel it as a phantom limb in your pocket. My thumb has even woken me up in the middle of the night, scrolling by itself. Like, I must be fed the delicious data garbage!
It’s not as if we decided we should spend 4 hours a day (or much more) on this nonsense. It just creeps in and the disease takes over.
Like any drug or gambling addiction, we pick our stupid-smartphones up and scroll on them for a dopamine hit. Scrolling, like puling the lever on the slot machine. Oooo, a notification! Then, the dopamine wears off, and we need another hit. Scroll again. Yay! Eventually, we become dependent on them for a feeling of novelty and entertainment. Our everyday lives, in comparison, starts to feel dull. In the long-run, we end up feeing worse and more disconnected and anxious. (See Tristan Harris and Center For Humane Technology.)
Look, I know I am over here typing away on a computer, posting YouTube links, etc. And that has its own set of pitfalls. But I’m specifically complaining about stupid-smartphones right now, for one reason: they are 100% portable. They’re too easy to mindlessly grab and fiddle with when we have 10 seconds, no matter where we are. (See a tree you like? Grab the phone, take a photo. And don’t forget to check Facebook before you put it away again.) Other devices can’t interrupt us as easily when we are doing other things.
We can address other problems next, like how much time we are spending in front of any kind of screen at all vs. using our bodies… even going outside. *Gasp!* One thing at a time. For now… with all we know, can we stop with the stupid-smartphone stuff? Or at least try really hard? Make a serious effort to improve our lives?
Yes. For the past week, I’ve kept my stupid-smartphone physically far away from me. I put it up high on a shelf so I can’t even see it. Every couple days, I remember it exists, and I charge it.
For me, the device has only two good purposes:
1 – A telephone
2 – Driving directions / traffic avoidance
So that’s all I use it for now. (And tracking my bike rides, which really isn’t all that good of a purpose. So, I rode my bike and looked at the trees, why does the phone need to know that?)
This change has been very good.
It has increased my amount of free time, and that free time is now invested in things that are valuable to me in the long-term: home improvement projects, exercise, organizing my life, and reading books.
I recommend it. Try it.
*Unless you are a person with a disability that uses the stupid-smartphone for a special purpose.