Yes, this is another article about smartphones. We all know the usual story–it’s been told a thousand times not only on the Forum, but the narrative is even gaining ground in popular culture. At this point both you and I can take it as a given premise that “smartphones,” which I use as a catch-all for not only handheld touchscreen computers with internet access, but all social media platforms, applications, and websites, can be dangerous and damaging. But I felt compelled to write this article because I’ve found that this prevailing narrative is both inaccurate and ineffective.
It’s become commonplace to believe that companies like Facebook (or Meta or whatever), Google, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and the like are operated by evil genius technocrats who have amassed a team of devious engineers who, from post-modern architectural open office plans, are clunking at keyboards programming applications that “hack” our minds. We believe these applications condition our physical brains to crave the dopamine rush of scrolling through a panoply of memes and headlines and sports highlights so that we become addicted to the novelty. And when we’re not looking at our screens, we get FOMO or whatever new acronyms have been invented to describe a withdrawal from instant gratification. The story casts us as the victimized heroes: addicts in recovery ceaselessly battling against these evil dealers that attempt to steal our attention and monetize it or worse. And the happy ending is when we finally thwart these schemes and live liberated and fulfilling lives. But that story perpetuates the entire paradigm that I believe is causing the problem in the first place. And it is the paradigm of self-worship.
The Blackout Show
A few years ago, a close friend of mine invited me to a concert in D.C. The headlining duo were well-regarded influential pioneers of electronic music. As we drove through the suburbs and into the city, with only the headlights of his pollen-caked Mazda dimly revealing the road ahead, he informed me that once we entered the venue, I was supposed to keep my phone holstered; in fact, it would be better if I turned it off. This was part of the mystique of the performance, and it was implicitly known by all in attendance that the only illumination was to come from the stage.
Once we arrived, we descended the stairs into the basement and dissolved into the crowd. When the show was about to begin, all the lights shut off except for the blinking synthesizers and drum machines surrounding the performers. Then they dropped the beat and the crowd was entranced, each individual as part of a homogenous entity sharing the same experience. There was literally nothing else that could be perceived but the stage–and then at one point a solitary beam that shone from the iPhone of a poor unenlightened patron who trudged his way through a gauntlet of fists punishing him for trying to find his way to the restroom. While I personally don’t condone the beating, the communal message of “you’re forsaking this wonderful thing for your selfish desire to see where you’re going” was universally understood. For this reason, artists like Jack White have a similar policy for their concerts.
Contrast this with when we returned to the same venue a short time later for a different artist: an incredibly talented band from Boston who absolutely slayed. Despite the stellar show, it wasn’t the same experience. A fractured audience twinkled with screens taking photos or filming snippets of the performance, more interested in social proof of their attendance than partaking in the spectacle before them.
The attendees for both of these two shows were almost identical in demographic, yet in the first one the fans not only voluntarily but almost religiously kept their devices out of sight–with the exception of the one full-bladdered heretic. While in the second show, they seemed more interested in what was in their hands than what was on the stage. My theory as to what motivated the attitude of the first crowd was either a shared dedication to a greater good or a fear of being physically punished for violating an implicit social contract. I’m going to focus on the former.
The Predominant Mythos
When considering how we approach the use of technology or smartphones, the conclusion cannot be a binary absolute. Like it or not, technology is unavoidable, and it’s actually not an inherently bad thing. There are countless numbers of digital tools that have been created which provide a net good beyond contest. Yet, there are other applications that we consider dangerous, damaging, and addictive. Our impulsive reaction when discovering the harmful consequences of these products is to declare them destructive and advocate for their abolition, or at least for some kind of systematic restriction. My point, however, is that these applications are not intrinsically evil, but that they capitalized on an opportunity that we ourselves have created.
This is why I argue against the predominant smartphone mythos of the evil tech companies trying to steal our souls, for which the trained response is to practice how to shield ourselves from the dark arts of brain-hackery and psychological tricks that have ruined so many lives. We eat up this story because it externalizes the evil; we believe that we were “programmed” or “wired” with weaknesses that are exploited by villainous geeks. We inspire ourselves to make the heroic choice to put down the phone while convincing ourselves that it wasn’t us who chose to pick it up in the first place. It becomes even more unsatisfactory when you realize that in this mythos you, the protagonist, are fighting this war in the name of none other than thyself. That is, we’re told to restrain ourselves from these self-serving devices so that we can better serve ourselves, without clarifying what that looks like. By the end of this story, we might not have actually broken free from the master that kept us glued to a screen in the first place, we’ve only pacified him.
The Legend of Lionel
Let us consider the life philosophy of a friend and legendary former colleague of ours, Dr. Lionel Yaceczko. This guy never had a cell phone. As in, he didn’t own a cell phone. And I loved making fun of him for being so out of it. If he’s reading this right now he’s probably remembering how much grief I gave him for never getting the messages from our faculty texting group about when and where we were going to be hanging out after classes on a Friday afternoon, or what time we were going to get together to play dominoes or poker (despite this, he rarely missed poker night). And you might be thinking, “This guy must be some kind of neo-Luddite hipster who wears an Indiana Jones hat and will frequently break into Ancient Greek or Latin in casual conversation.” And yes, you’d be right on all counts, but the reason he never purchased a phone wasn’t to perpetuate that self-image.
A guy like Lionel doesn’t have a smartphone simply because there is no appeal. He’s so conscientious of and participatory in the beauty of his immediate reality that he has no interest in trading it for text messages or sports scores. He doesn’t broadcast this decision to his students or colleagues in some kind of flex intended to showcase his iron will. The device just doesn’t fit into his worldview. I’m not trying to convince everyone to get rid of their phone, but we need to live a mythos where it’s not a perpetual temptation that we struggle against every second.
Reframing the Story
In what seems like a final move of desperation, Socrates, in Plato’s Gorgias, gives a speech on judgment and the afterlife. After condemning Gorgias, the rhetorician, of being no more than a persuader, Socrates employs Gorgias’ own craft to make his final plea. This was pointed out to me by one of my favorite Catholic University philosophy professors, Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, and a conclusion that you can draw from it is that we are not purely reasonable beings. Peer-reviewed studies and articles written to pull back the curtain and expose the truth about social media aren’t enough to change our behavior. We need stories and myths and fables to shape a positive worldview that informs our decisions; it’s that whole moral imagination thing. And the story of the smartphone as the pseudo-sentient brain invader is inadequate.
The mythos surrounding the use of smartphones and technology should not be a dystopian tale about how the common man rebels against his tech overlords and wins his freedom. It should be a love story, a rediscovery and infatuation with the ordinary. Because I choose not to believe that some hotshot UI/UX designer with a PhD in neuronal-tickling has engineered a backdoor into our brains and has brought us to our knees by pulling on the right strings (or synapses). I choose instead to believe that we’ve voluntarily opened the front door by having long ago forgotten how to love the things we put aside every time we look down and unlock our screens.
A New Mythos
The new mythos is not about a battle against technology, nor is it about willing against our instinctual appetites. It is about willing towards a lost good. Love is a choice, and this story is about choosing to love the things we didn’t realize we’d sacrificed.
Consider the situations where we find ourselves likely to interface with our devices. This could be when stuck in traffic, standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for students to finish a test, or any other periods that we might consider “dead time.” Efficiency and productivity are celebrated virtues in American culture, and thus we use this time to open and respond to emails, read the news, or check the stock market. We believe that we’re creating value where there was none, and that is our mistake.
Policies such as “no phones at the dinner table” have become commonplace because it’s easy to recognize the good of sharing a meal and conversation with friends and family, and that good is extinguished when distracted by devices. What has been neglected, however, is any good which can be found in the mundane activities that we’ve subconsciously declared “dead time.” Sitting in traffic is an incredible opportunity to simply take in the world around you and contemplate and reflect on it–you get to observe the outdoors from the comfort of a climate-controlled wheeled box. Standing in line or in a waiting room, you can choose to give your attention to those around you, smile at people, or if the opportunity presents itself, help somebody. If you’re a teacher, while your students are taking a test, walk around the room, answer questions if there are any–just be present; be all there.
This sounds overly romanticized, but that’s kinda the idea. We must believe that these trivial everyday events are truly beautiful and more worthy of our love than almost anything we could accomplish on our phones or personal computers. Not only that, but choosing to love these things is choosing to love something outside of ourselves. Like the concertgoers at a blackout show, or like Dr. Yaceczko, we should almost religiously celebrate the sanctity of everyday opportunities to give ourselves to something that we choose to believe is greater than ourselves. And by living out this mythos, we propagate it.
As parents, teachers, and school leaders, this is our duty. Because news articles, studies, and leaked memoranda from social media corporations are not nearly as powerful as witnesses. And when our sons and students are part of a culture, at home and at school, whose traditions exemplify a love for the world–a love for reality–then when they’re eventually old enough to be trusted to use technology responsibly, the threat of addiction is virtually nonexistent because it’s not even part of the story. When they observe us, in quiet and dull moments, voluntarily and happily choosing to be more engaged with them or with something other than a self-isolating device, then features such as “Screen Time” restrictions or “Focus Mode” become silly, superfluous marketing gimmicks. Because why would we need an additional piece of software persuading us that we’re helpless animals instinctively drawn to our devices? In the new mythos, there is no such belief.