Hidden Springs Lane. What’s the deal with Smart Phones? Go to any public gathering and most of the young people (and some of the not-so-young) are clearly more interested in their phones than they are with you. Now right off the bat, you are no doubt thinking “not another cranky screed from a grouchy middle-ager who can’t figure out how to work an iPhone or who is holding out on the pleasure just to be contrary” (which is a regular occupation for grouchy middle-agers). Rather than being simply grouchy, however, I’d like to consider some of the implications of our cultural obsession with that small screen in our pockets.

Some places seem to warrant a smart phone. Airports, for instance, seem well-suited to these devices. Airports are placeless places where no one wants to be. No one travels to an airport; we use airports to get somewhere else. Thus, it seems natural (if I can use that word in the context of our modern technologies) to ignore the non-place of an airport by means of a device that is perfectly designed to help us ignore the place we where we are. By means of these devices we can also ignore the strangers around us and, perhaps, stay in contact with those we know and love (assuming we use our phone to talk or text with them rather than watch videos on YouTube or play a game).

But what happens when the device crops up in real places and in the presence of real people we know? Recently I was at a restaurant where I saw an attractive couple sitting across from each other. They were both staring at their phones, completely absorbed in another world, oblivious to each other, and, frankly, appearing somewhat bored. Were they on a date? What kind of relationship were they cultivating? What was happening on their little screens that was more interesting than the person sitting before them? Maybe it was a lousy blind date and both knew it. But I wonder.

Surely there are times and places where these devices should be shut down and left behind, but I’m not sure there is any clear consensus on when and where that should be. Do family gatherings deserve our full attention? Well, I suppose that depends on the family, but it seems like the default position should be in favor of flesh and blood. How about a dinner party? Should the host or hostess be miffed if you regularly check your phone and “discretely” send texts under the table? Do you owe your attention to the other guests? Are there duties that attend accepting a dinner invitation, one of which is to give full attention to the proceedings? Do modern lovers shut down their devices to make love or are they perpetually half present, always listening for the friendly chirp that sets the imagination to wondering if that which is waiting in the virtual world is better than the present, embodied reality? I wonder.

So there are several layers here. The first is etiquette. Surely we all recognize (or should recognize) that there are certain places and times when the devices should be put away. A serious conversation? A formal dinner? Holy communion? However, as our technologies become more closely interfaced with our senses (Google Glass is just the beginning) will the lines become less clear? Perhaps our expectations for etiquette will simply shift to accommodate this new way of being, where the present embodied reality will blur with the virtual world that we are continually striving toward. Will anything be lost? What will be gained?

What makes us prefer the virtual over the real? Is it perpetual possibility? Is it curiosity never sated because contact is always deferred? Is it the false but alluring promise that the potential perfection is preferable to the imperfect people and places all around us? Doesn’t pornography consist of this very dynamic?

In an important way, embodiment is a central issue to this discussion. As embodied creatures it would seem that embodied encounters should be our default mode; however, it seems as if many are quite willingly exchanging the primacy of embodiment for a “reality” that leaves actual bodies behind. But does reading a book do anything different? I can escape the present by means of a book just as I can escape by means of a smart phone. Strange, though, how ubiquitous the device has become. Something about it is more alluring, more persistent in its beckoning, than a book. Perhaps it is the speed of movement whereby we can flit from one image to the next, one topic to another, with no continuity, rationality, or commitment. Our technology allows us to be promiscuous in our attention.

Even the ubiquity of texting over talking seems to indicate a strange preference for digital communication over voiced communication. Voices, human voices that is, are the direct product of embodiment. In a particular voice we can hear the distinct variations and characteristics that indicate the person “behind” the voice. We can hear the pitch, the tremor, the irritation. We can even hear a smile. We humans are vocal creatures, and our voices are the primary means by which we communicate ideas, affections, feelings, and aspirations. By-passing voiced communication by means of text messaging may not be a big deal unless we come to prefer the one over the other. That is, unless we come to use texts as a means to avoid encountering another voice. Doing so would seem to represent one more step in our retreat from embodiment.

But in my self-satisfied smugness, perhaps I am not as innocent as I pretend. I am sitting with my laptop, typing away, checking email whenever I hear the happy sound alerting me that a new message has arrived in my inbox. I tell myself that I’m not like those youngsters with the smart phones, but my laptop distracts me, enthralls me, in ways not unlike a smart phone. I tell myself that working from home, sitting on a couch, allows me to be present, but does it really? I attend to the screen while four beautiful children and their beautiful mother inhabit the background, only partially seen or heard. What opportunities am I missing? What am I teaching them about my priorities?

For this New Year, a resolution: embrace real presences. Turn off the distractions. Give full attention to the people who matter most. Speak, listen, attend. Oh, I know we can’t completely free ourselves from our technology. But we can take control of it. We can make it our docile servant, one that we use for work and then shut off so we can return to the real world. To the everyday world that is anything but, for in the everyday world mysteries abound if we only have eyes to see. Beauty, truth, love, laughter, and tears: these are the essence of a human life. These are the very things we so easily miss when we fail to attend to the real presences all around us.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Sometimes the smartphone can be a way of enhancing the interactions with the other person rather than diminishing them. When I’m at lunch and meet someone from another country who is trying to explain where he is from, or tells some story about a place he has been, I whip out my smartphone and try to find the place on google maps to make sure I understand what is being described. I’ve then had people go into more detail, taking my phone and zooming in to show me more about their home, or a research site, or whatever. When we get down to concrete details it’s more fun, and it also tends to clear up misunderstandings.

    Or take the time when my mother was telling about a movie she had seen when she was a girl. She couldn’t remember whether it was a silent movie or a talkie. I knew the book on which this movie was based had been made into a movie several times. While she was talking I whipped out my smartphone, and in a few seconds, with the help of wikipedia and imdb, we determined that it had been a silent movie. But anyhow, this bit of information triggered more memories from my mother, and also gave her confidence that we were interested in what she was saying, at least to the point of trying to nail down these details she was unsure of. Using the smartphone enhanced the conversation rather than supplanted it.

    Recently at a church dinner (yes, such things still occur) the local VA chaplain and I were illustrating our conversation with images from our smartphones, having a good time showing each other images across the table. One of the young mothers, a public school teacher, stopped by and told us we looked just like kids the way we were using our smartphones.

    In a setting like these it would also be possible to use smartphones in a way that would be rude to others. But the point is that for the sake of sociability it isn’t so much whether your smartphone is turned on or not, but what you’re doing with it.

  2. To me the upside of it all is that finaly we have a fuctional alternative (technology) to interceed between or rampant false personalitie and our higher being. We now at least have space to gather ourselves before responding… I like it.

  3. I don’t disagree with this post, but it brought to mind my San Diego apartment in the early 1970s where I lived off-base. One of my roommates bought a television and set it up in the living room, turning the place, I thought, into a barren wasteland where nobody any longer had real conversations.

  4. Moments ago I finished reading your essay on my smartphone, and now I am at my laptop writing this comment. It began in the living room with the local news on the television. After the third or fourth robbery report, I grew bored, reached for my phone, and checked a few bookmarks: The Imaginative Conservative, National Review (an app, actually), Touchstone, and, finally, Front Porch Republic. I was pleasantly surprised to find a new post, and one about technology, no less. While my wife sat across the room with her nose in her own phone, I clicked the essay title and started reading. (Do not despair; my wife and I enjoy the alone-together time that our smartphones make possible.) A few engrossed minutes later, I found myself at the laptop. I confess: I am 47 years old and I love my smartphone. I use it mostly to read articles and essays; in fact, I begin my weekends and vacation days with a cup of coffee and my phone. I check the sites that I have mentioned and many more, invariably finding something good enough to settle into until the kids awaken and ask for breakfast. The Oxford English Dictionary in my “cloud” greatly assists my reading. I tap the strange word once and get the “define” command; I tap the command and word, definition, and etymology appear, dare I say, like magic.

    Ironically, I rarely use my smartphone for its core function–talking to people. I hate phone conversations because they make me nervous, and I always flub my words. Texting allows me to think before I speak, but since I have little of value to say on most subjects, I tend not to speak unless spoken to.

    Is my world real, virtual, or both? If Mark Mitchell is a real person who wrote a real essay to be read on a real device, I’d say that the question is moot. Has technology intruded upon my marriage? If our phones preclude the latest argument about house chores, I’d say that marriage gets to live another day.

  5. I agree with this post 100%. And yet it is so hard. I don’t have a smart phone or a tablet (but I do have a laptop and kindle). And I always try to ignore my phone when I am with people. And yet I go home to visit my family for the holidays (I am a graduate student) and everyone is messing with their smart phone, playing with their tablet, and I really want to give and receive full attention from everyone-play a card game with people rather than individually play games on our devices. But no one wants to do this. So I go home for the holidays for a few weeks to visit and we all spend our evenings in different rooms doing our own thing. This is a tragedy. But how does one person convince all the others to put all the electronics down for just a little bit? Same with community – community is very important but how does one person build or repair a community or family that isn’t really there to begin with? These are the questions I struggle with.

  6. Yeah, I struggle with sounding like a mere curmudgeonly Luddite, too! However, I can see the many ways this technology can enhance our lives without detracting from them, as some of the foregoing responses show. I guess it all comes down to the age-old question about any of our possessions: Do we possess them, or do they possess us?

  7. Thank you, Professor Mitchell. So glad to see something on this topic. If I may —

    The driver of the modern industrial economy, it seems to me, isn’t capital, the hunger for personal gain, but the terror of financial ruin and even total annihilation. The insecurity bred by looming or present financial debt, war (for markets), unemployment, broken families, destroyed local communities, economic bubbles, climate chaos… The list goes on. The true (diabolical) genius of digital technology is that it both generates and satisfies — or offers the promise and illusion of satisfying — the consequent psychological insecurities, creating a vicious cycle. It aims to hook us like nothing before into predatory commerce, mining and increasingly turning over to corporate marketers our “data” — the myriad traits and characteristics and relationships that comprise our very identities — and stunting and discouraging our capacity for self-reliance, memory, imagination, judgement and actual conversation; and in so doing leaves us increasingly in an infantile state of dependency on it to supply those things (isn’t there an “app” for everything?), terrified of being alone with our own thoughts and being left to what we used to call “our own devices.” Remember OUR OWN devices — our personal resourcefulness and imagination and powers to solve problems? We traded away our own devices for Apple’s and Samsung’s. Now the devices aren’t truly ours, and the ones we have in fact have US. The old saying’s not quite right: We’ve become the tools, not of OUR tools, but of corporate industry’s.

    Recently I was applying for an account with a supplier, and the secretary, filling out the application, asked me my cell number. I told her I don’t have a cell phone. She looked up from the form, amazed. “No cell phone?!”
    “No,” I said. “I’m free!”
    “You are!” she exclaimed, the idea coming as a revelation. “You’re free!”

    But in truth I’m only as free as one can feel surrounded every day by crack heads convinced they’ll die without the stuff. How can I convince you all?: it’s an illusion. Not only can you live without them — you’ll be MORE alive without them. Like you used to be. Can you still remember?

  8. Thank you Mark for this piece in which you make a number of excellent points. I particularly appreciate your emphasis of presence and embodiment. I think you draw our attention to this simple truth: though there are various good uses to which these technologies can be put, in the end there is in their use an inherent threat to real human presence. If we are to use these technologies well it will be crucial, it seems to me, that we be aware of this threat, and vigilant and disciplined in moderating, and sometimes avoiding altogether, their use.

  9. Great article, Mark. I don’t have much to add, but I would like to offer an image that may serve as a sign of the times. I’ve been working in a cafe waiting tables, and during my last shift on multiple occasions I stopped short of a table when I noticed a family had all silently bowed their heads.
    “How nice,” I thought, “they’re praying together as a family before I bring their food out.”
    Then I would take a second look and realize that they were each staring into their smartphones. I guess that’s the world we live in now.

  10. Cell phone usage is a lot like TV. They both have very useful features that are real enhancements to living. I think there’s something like the “Pareto principle” except for usage of such devices. 20% is good and useful and 80% percent is a waste. On a balance you’d have to say they net out as a negative.

    On a related subject, I have noticed that people younger than a certain age (somewhere around 25) are losing their ability (or desire) to speak. Two alternatives suggest themselves: (1) they can’t or (2) they can but their “data base” of knowledge is so deficient that they cannot carry on a conversation. (Except for cell phone data/text/voice plans, gadgets, comic book super heroes). I think a lot of this is due to texting.

  11. I enjoyed this essay. The focus on embodiment, existence in place and time, is certainly the “central issue to this discussion.” We locate and define ourselves only in one of three places: our minds, our speech and the movement of how we communicate (our energy or personality), or our bodies. Only our bodies age. An understanding of the reality of death and mortality depends on our experience of our embodied selves. And that may explain some of the allure of entertainment devices that allow us to “check out” and “escape” from the truth of existence.

    The problem isn’t with the technology. The problem is our discomfort with sitting still and being willing to be awake.

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