I’ve read so many cultural doomsday think pieces about why our smartphone habits are signaling the end of human civilization. But is being glued to your phone really so bad?
Computers have been “personal” for a long time. Indeed, technology itself, of any kind, has always been personal because it is us humans — real, breathing people with everyday problems — that use the technology to solve those problems. The person who created the bow and arrow was involved in a deeply personal process. Why? Because what does it even mean to be “personal”? “Used by people for people things.” That’s the best guess I got.
What’s different with the phone is that it contains everything that could potentially ruin us and/or give us a massive headache if it was stolen. If someone steals your bow and arrows it’s not like that big of a deal. But your phone contains sensitive banking information, private photos, notes, and information that could be used by a malicious agent to cause great ruin. Not to mention just the hassle of having to reset all your digital accounts and set-up a new phone.
That’s what people mean when they say they have their “life” in their smart phones. Moreover, we can’t forget that smartphones are a luxury status symbol. Having the latest and great iPhone is supposed to signal something to others about you and your digital sophistication.
But the phone is also your ultimate interface to reality. You customize it to you and you alone. You can look up any information. Play any song. Watch pretty much anything. Read anything. Talk with real humans. Read stories. Cry. Laugh. Compete. It is a mirror of life because it is humans using this stuff afterall. If there were no humans around the internet would look very different.
But let’s ask ourselves: how did we get addicted to these technologies in the first place? We didn’t just suddenly wake up as a global population and all like smart phones. They seem, instead, to be fulfilling a deep need. Or, more likely, multiple needs. People use them for very different reasons. Some use them to send text messages. Some use them to live out elaborate kink fantasies. The utility is near infinite.
After all, they are personal computers and computers are the ultimate tools for solving problems for us. They are in a way just very reliable machines that operate very quickly to solve complex problems.
But, I think we sometimes forget that some of the hardest problems in human society are very tough to crack: boredom, anxiety, depression, stress, health, , ageing, coming to terms with your mortality, feeling isolated, wanting to feel genuine human connection, etc., etc.
It’s hard to just build an app to solve those problems (though Facebook certainly has tried). Instead, a more accurate picture is that things like Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc., are but one of many tools we use to cope with the crushing stress of 21st century life in a hyper-capitalist globally interconnected society.
But even before we lurched forward unwittingly into the Age of the Internet, humans have been struggling to give meaning to their lives. The entire history of human culture, religion, architecture, music, art, etc., etc., is testament to that struggle to spin a narrative for everything we experience. Our brains are constantly thinking in terms of narratives, scripts, language games, contexts, frameworks, etc.
The progress of humans towards a more Just World has involved giving up our faith in many traditions as well as living new truths, starting new habits, setting out new patterns, frameworks, and systems. It’s always been about change.
But the evolution of humans has also involved random change and mutation. Perhaps social media is a mutation of the human species, a sudden change in our development. We don’t have to have a moral panic about young children being “glued to the screen”. Morality is a perspective. We can view human evolution in morally neutral terms and just accept the reality of Facebook having billions of dedicated users. That’s basic supply and demand. They are giving us what we want.
In other words, the reality is we fucking love our smart phones and our social media. That’s the reality. I doubt this is going to change anytime soon. I therefore propose we should just learn to embrace it and stop having a moral panic. Yes, that means your kids are going to grow up to think and act differently than you. Oh, my! Like that’s never happened before in the history of society. But we don’t have to view this as good or bad. It just is.
We like being glued to screens because we can absorb so much novel information. Novelty is a sure way to give your life micro-doses of meaning. It’s the thrill of discovery. Of settling our anxiety about the unknown from the comfort of our homes. I always say “home is where the wi-fi connects automatically.” Have you ever had a Twitter feed of thousands of people you follow? It’s a ridiculous amount of novel information, from all around the world.
You can ever only scratch the surface of what’s out there. Not to mention knowing that every second you’re on Twitter you’re missing all the novel information on Youtube, etc. We live in a society where there is a super abundance of relevant information we would enjoy consuming. We don’t possibly have the time or cognitive resources to consume all this. Medium itself is testament to that.
But eventually we step back and realize that the entire process of gaining novelty through the infinite scroll has lost its novelty. There’s only so long you can spend on reddit before it starts to affect your mental health. That’s been my experience anyway. You can try and find the better moderated communities but you can still fall into the infinite scroll mindset.
If you’re truly honest with yourself, is that the best way to spend your time? Imagine yourself on your deathbed and some data nerd shows you stats on how much time you had spent mindlessly browsing social media — would you be OK with that? If so, great. Go back to scrolling through the Gram. But for the rest of us who crave depth in the meaning we form with other humans, it’s probably true we would regret how much time we try to find meaning in social media.
Here’s another way to think about social media.
Imagine you had all the money in the world. Money was never going to be a concern for you ever. How would you spend your days? Like 30 years into that lifestyle, what do you see yourself doing? I want you to think about this in terms of what would make you fulfilled. You would love waking up every day. You would have purpose in your life.
Got it? Now think of the steps in real life you’d have to take to get to that lifestyle. If using social media takes you to that lifestyle — great — use it. Social media is an incredible tool. It can be used for networking for creators and entrepreneurs in a very powerful way. It can truly help you achieve your dreams. I got my current job at the creative agency RebelMouse from someone following me on Twitter. I was previously working in the food industry.
Anything is possible when there are humans involved.