Rock Island, IL

There is a cartoon on page fifty-five of the February 27 New Yorker (2017) in which a child sits up in bed against his pillow, his eyes wide open, his visage expectant. The drawing suggests engagement and deep interest as the man seated next to him, presumably his father (balding, bespeckled, collar open and tie pulled down), reads aloud.

It’s a classic scene, the bedtime story, except what the father reads from is a lap-top computer. But otherwise everything accords with the formula. Above the boy there’s a poster or portrait of a baseball player at the plate awaiting the pitch. The room is fenestrated, the curtains open, and outside there is clearly a landscape, if indistinct, and above it what appears to be a shooting star, though also indistinct, perhaps because in the world depicted here nature isn’t nearly as interesting as what the internet has to offer.

The caption reads: “Please, Daddy, just one more conspiracy theory.”

It’s a pretty good joke: the man, clearly pleased at this request, is more interested in what he himself is interested in than in what the boy should be but probably isn’t—for example, the story of the baseball player depicted in the image above him, or the shooting star, or, say, Peter Rabbit. The boy, poor fellow, has apparently been conditioned to get excited about his father’s delusions. And his father is clearly delighted.

The underside of all this is that the man’s attire betrays a prosaic and perhaps dull life, a life sustained by the satisfaction of weird cravings. The admiring boy flatters his old man by asking for more of what the old man himself clearly wants more of, no matter its relevance to either of them.

We are invited to assume that when the boy’s bedroom lights go out, his old man will go elsewhere with his laptop to fulfill the son’s and his own wishes: more conspiracy theories, which people who call themselves “adults” are capable of being interested in in ways that they’re not capable of being interested in Jane Austen. And since the man does not retire to a book, or to letter-writing, or to conversation with the boy’s mother, we can only hope for the man’s sake that his investigations will at least be made more interesting by a salutary double scotch at his elbow.

But since his work shirt is short-sleeved, and since he may even be sporting a pocket protector, we may reasonably doubt that he has the capacity to imagine scotch as a divine gift that might improve his existence, “divine” and “gift” being too metaphysical for him—and maybe “existence” too.

Now Wordsworth was often a fool, but he did have the good sense once to say that

the human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability.

He was making a pitch for poetry, which needs no application of gross and violent stimulants. He said that “a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor,” which, said Wordsworth,

produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

That tendency of life and manners includes conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, said Wordsworth, “the invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies,”

that is, by gothic fiction (in Wordsworth’s day) and Stephen King, etc., (in ours).

Once, after an old friend and I had exchanged horror stories about our children, I summarized the conversation by saying to him—a man on whom irony is never lost—“Parenting is easy!”

You might seem to remember it being easy for your parents, whom you thought to be expert, since they were (after all) parents. But it wasn’t. Like you, they were learning on the job. If, like my parents, they had to adapt to such things as television, and then during those dark years of its reign to cable television, they had their trials to go along with all the other new ones under the sun, like the mini-skirt, rock ’n roll, microwave “cooking,” and the Bible reduced to the New International Version, which is twice as pernicious as go-go boots ever were. (The mini-skirt I still regard as a divine gift.)

But nevertheless you weren’t raised to hear “one more conspiracy theory.” You were raised to read and write. First you were raised to sympathize with Peter Rabbit, or with whomever, but you weren’t raised without such markers as help create a common culture. Nor were you raised to be indifferent to the language you learned that sympathy and those markers by. You were raised to read and write, and your sympathy for Peter Rabbit aided in your improving literacy. Maybe you didn’t read like John Milton at Horton or write like Jonathan Edwards at the age of eight, but you probably weren’t making dioramas or doing coloring projects in your sophomore year, as I hear tell of these days.

And the reason is that you weren’t raised in the age of the most pernicious devices known to man, which are “devices” only because we have added the prefix “de” to “vice”—apparently ironically—and then provided the things with two opprobrious epithets: “mobile,” because in our age mobility is an unimpeachable good, and “smart,” because in our age we find it necessary to assure ourselves of the smartness of dumb things.

Hence the “smart classroom,” that hellish place equipped with everything inimical to true learning and inhabited by people who are anything but smart.

The bedroom depicted in the cartoon qualifies, I suppose, as a “smart bedroom,” for where “technology” has infiltrated—and by “technology” we usually mean all the shit that distracts us from Peter Rabbit and baseball and nature—the place is “smart.” (And when at last we make the bedroom itself, like the computer the father holds, “mobile,” we will have perfected it. We’ve done it, after all, with the “mobile home.”)

For my part, I hope the plague takes it all. I won’t be so uncharitable as to add “and all the people with it,” but consider first the panic if it all disappears and then the suicidal tendencies likely to emerge when the hand discovers there’s no “world at its finger tips” and the ears find that there are no wires dangling from them. Depopulation could be plague-like in its proportions.

Unlikely, you say? Think again. Consider the degree of centralization that the mobile (de)vice represents: so much stored in so small a space. No wonder people “can’t live without” them; no wonder their panic when the computer crashes, when the battery dies, when the charger disappears, when the cell phone signal goes dark and the call “drops.” The worry is worse than a teenager’s on a bad hair day. And the reason is simple: everyone involved is pretty much a teenager.

Nor will I be so uncharitable as not to concede this point: whatever the epithets you use to convince yourself that the little tyrant you hold is good, it is smart in at least one respect: it teaches the importance of decentralization. Decentralize, and the panic goes away—along with all the havoc. Then you can return to pleasures widely dispersed—to pastoral poetry, Jane Austen, baseball, Peter Rabbit, landscapes outside the window, and the shooting stars above them. Talk about smart. Talk about mobile.

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    • Yeah, I thought the same thing. If the technology poses “significant dangers to our well-being” as Alastair Roberts argued recently, then isn’t producing content in some sense like the dealer who doesn’t sample his product, like the TV producer who doesn’t watch?

  1. This essay has been written a thousand times since 1989 (when Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW) by the Shakespeare-reading, baseball-loving, Scotch-drinking crowd. It’s how conservative elitists’ contempt for the parochial unwashed (not based on where but how they live, what they read, watch, play, or drink) is expressed. I love baseball and enjoy Shakespeare (though I recognize I need to work harder to train myself how to really read him), but I don’t drink at all. I no more understand why the Scotch (or Bushmills) crowd is so “intoxicated” by the charm of killing their brain cells than I do the white whine drinking, modern, professional woman or Joe Sixpack. Scotch and mini-skirts (yes, a joke) are divine gifts, but beer and bikinis are from Satan (my own snide jest).

    I recognize the perils of technology, especially for children, and the risks of its misapplication, like education, and to our relationships and health. They are real, but sketching out a caricature of smart phone users based on a satirical cartoon doesn’t help. We all live in Reloville now, and once of the most devastating aspects of modern capitalism for cultural, social, and family cohesion is a loss of a sense of place due to, often necessary, mobility. Smart phones can help mitigate the damage if, like any technology, it is used wisely.

    My oldest son is currently deployed for six months. Today is his fifth wedding anniversary. Not only can he and his wife talk, but his mother and I can keep up with him daily. Not only can we send messages but we can actually video chat. My wife was deployed to Iraq twice. The first time, in 2003, we could only email, and talk rarely on a phone. By her second deployment in 2006 we could text, use VoIP and video chat. My youngest daughter is currently studying abroad in Australia. She’s not going to write a letter, but we get messages and pictures daily.

    I was a stay-at-home dad to five children, two special needs adopted–and I home-schooled one of them because the schools could not–and it’s one of the heartbreaks of my life that with them all flown away the time of their childhood sometimes feels like it was a different lifetime lived by a different person, one I read about (or watched, because I have mental snapshots). Because they are so far-flung (one in upper-state NY, one in WV, one in Australia, currently, but usually PA, one in SC when not deployed (and moving to TX when he gets back) and one in VA, where my wife and I live) it’s too much like high-school or college friends you rarely see.

    What’s needed is a way to teach and train people to use technology humanely and wisely. If someone is talking to you and your phone dings, don’t reach for it. If you do and they stop talking and say they’ll wait, don’t push back angrily and say “I was listening.” Just don’t. My smart pone has a Kindle App. On that App are Shakespeare, Austin, Wordsworth, and many other great books, and even entire books of poems. On my smart phone is a Bible app (ESV, not NIV). When I am at a doctor’s office or another long wait, I read them, and read sites like “First Things” and message my kids, and look at pictures on their Instagrams, and make shopping lists, and search for recipes.

    The main character in a low-brow comedy, “Renaissance Man,” said: “The choices we make determine the lives with live.” Good advice with technology, whether said by Lincoln or Danny DeVito. We need to make, and teach others how to make, wise choice with smart phones, because if we do they can enrich our lives, just like Scotch, for some, and enhance social and family cohesion.

  2. The idea expressed by this essay makes more sense once you come to the conclusion that efficiency and convenience are not unalloyed goods.

    • And that’s a valid conclusion few wise people deny. However, the “idea expressed by this essay” also make less sense when one considers that the only way to read “The Front Porch Republic,” efficiently or inefficiently, conveniently or inconveniently, is digitally, be it with a smart phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop, no matter how insightful, educated, incisive and erudite the writers are, just as Shakespeare is whether read in a folio or listened to as an audio book on a long drive.

      In fact, if Shakespeare can’t be seen performed, listening is probably a better way to “read” him. At the end of “Quigley Down Under,” a trite western (no Milton, that), Quiqley– a sharpshooter who previously had said when asked if he wanted a pistol: “I never had a use for one”–is forced to engage in a quick draw gunfight with three men.

      Quigley, an American cowboy, quickly shoots them all, and walks over to McMasters (the elitist British snob and ersatz “lord of the manor), who looks up dying, and says: “But you said you didn’t know how to use one.” Quigley: “Said I had no use for one, not I didn’t know how to use one.”

      Like Colt .45s, or any other tool, smart phones have their uses. The problems comes in learning and knowing when and how to use them. That efficiency and convenience are not “unalloyed goods” doesn’t mean they’re “no good.” Nor does it mean efficiency and convenience are the only possible good of smart phones. There are others, and, again, just as with any tool, if one is intentional about discovering those goods, and mapping and accepting their limits, they can be a genuine good.

  3. So, the smart phone alienates us from the real world around us, from real people, real nature, real things.

    One could have said the same kind of things about the plain old dumb phone—the kind that was hard-wired into the wall, that you did not actually own, but rented from the phone company. When I was a little kid, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter, it was not unusual for dinner at my grandparents’ in Vermont to come to a screeching halt for a long-distance call from my uncle in California, or my grandmother’s relatives in Albany, or my dad’s cousins outside of Boston. A long distance call was a big deal then, and if Ma Bell interrupted the quiet sociability of those physically present at the dinner table, well that was the price paid for a bit of contact with those whom circumstances had separated.

    One could say the same kind of things about the old “film strips” of the 1960s, with pictures manually advanced according to prompts from a recorded narrative. Like the so-called “smart classroom,” they probably served more to give the teacher a break (and to avoid the hard work of teaching) than to impart anything particularly important to the students.

    One could say the same kind of things about plain old television. My wife reports that, when she was a girl (in the 1960s and 70s), the evening news was always on during suppers in the kitchen, and conversation was frowned upon. I was spared that, partly because we lived in a valley out in the country and there was virtually no TV reception. When I was in high school, we moved to the other side of the mountain, and our aerial antenna had a straight shot to distant Hartford and Boston. That gave us better reception, and more choices—more tempation. You just had to decide whether or not to turn the thing on.

    And that’s really the issue. Not the technology, but how we use it and how and when we exercise the choice not to use it.

    Some good things about the smart phone:

    It can be faster and easier to send a text message than leave a voice mail message.

    I can save a lot more phone numbers than I can remember (although I also probably don’t bother to remember as many phone numbers as I could)

    Maps—Google Maps is very helpful, especially when I am in some odd corner of my metro area with which I am not familiar, or driving across the state, or in a city I don’t really know.

    Once, when I was away, my flight home was cancelled at the end of the day. Dozens of people lined up at the ticket counter to re-book. I headed toward the airport exit, and used the Southwest app to re-book for the next available flight by the time I was in a cab to a hotel. No standing in line needed

    Whether it’s the dumb phone, the film-strip, the television, the computer, the tablet, or the smart phone, any gadget presents similar challenges.

    Know how to use it wisely.

    Know when not to use it at all.

    (And as far as the issue of “centralization” goes, most of my electronic stuff is saved on the cloud—any one device fails, it can be readily replaced. It’s about as decentralized as it gets. On the other hand, my really important guide to my day is my Moleskine notebook—totally non-tech—and totally “centralized.” If I lose that, I am in a world of hurt.)

  4. ~~That efficiency and convenience are not “unalloyed goods” doesn’t mean they’re “no good.” Nor does it mean efficiency and convenience are the only possible good of smart phones. There are others, and, again, just as with any tool, if one is intentional about discovering those goods, and mapping and accepting their limits, they can be a genuine good.~~

    A smart phone is no more “simply a tool” than a television is. If you buy a hammer at Sears your connection with Sears is done for the most part. Television and smart phone? Not so much. You’re not only dependent on the tool, you’re dependent on the connection.

    I don’t argue that for some people a smart phone is a necessity. For many others, however, it’s not — it’s just a convenience. But it’s funny how corporate America always finds a way to make us dependent on conveniences.

    • A smart phone is no more “simply a tool” than a television is

      Why is “simply a tool” in quotes? No one here said it? I didn’t. I said like any tool “it has its uses, ” and I would add misuses.

      I don’t argue that for some people a smart phone is a necessity. For many others, however, it’s not — it’s just a convenience. But it’s funny how corporate America always finds a way to make us dependent on conveniences.

      You’ll need to unpack “just a convenience.” If you think, for example, my daughter studying abroad being able to send me, in real time, just this morning, the pictures of her touring the Blue Mountains with her school (it’s Saturday there), while we exchange FB messages with her on our family group chat (with all of us participating) rather than taking pictures, printing them, and sending them to each of us in a letter, is “just a convenience” then I would argue you are wrong.

      Is a digital camera “just a convenience,” or is it, by being able to send pictures, save paper, last forever, etc., something more? My daughter uses her smart phone as a camera, and instantly shared her pictures and experience with her entire family spread across 4 states, 3 countries and even 3 continents, while we talked about it.

      Take the smart phone out of the equation. She could have taken the pictures on a digital camera, waited until she got back to her dorm, uploaded them to the computer, and then shared them. At what point in this technology chain do we regress past “just a convenience?” A camera with film, printed pictures, and waiting until all 7 of us can finally get together at Christmas and have her show them to us and tell us about her experiences, all 6 months of them?

      • I wish FPR allowed editing comments, or used Disqus. I forgot to add, that, yes, I agree, and never implied otherwise, that if one is using a smart phone for mostly watching video (a TV) or playing games, that is a misuse. I do neither on mine, though I do use it as a radio, but I listen to jazz, classical, Federalist Radio podcast, Mars Hill audio, CSPAN, etc.

        We live 5 miles from DC; my wife is stationed here. Ted Gale mentioned GPS. Was it mere convenience when we moved here we didn’t have to pull over and read maps to get around DC? If, so, then how were printed maps themselves not, at one time, “just a convenience”?

        The thesis of this piece is that smart phones are “good for nothing” and smart only in teaching a lesson in decentralization. This is nonsense on stilts, on both counts. I only addressed the good, but if one thinks Google, Amazon and Facebook collecting data is “decentralization” he should think on it a bit more.

        Such thinking shows no more knowledge of the dangers of technology, and the issues we need to focus on to mitigate them, than the idea that smart phones have no genuine goods to offer. I write this post running an open source browser (Chromium, not Chrome) under Linux, behind a firewall, with ad blockers, and a tracking blocker (Ghostery).

        Did you know FPR has 3 trackers on this page? Google Analytics, Adknowledge and Gravatar. Mostly innocuous, but did you know it?

  5. “Simply a tool” seemed to be what you were implying. Sorry if that was incorrect.

    ~~You’ll need to unpack “just a convenience.”~~~

    You seem to have missed my first sentence in that paragraph.

    My bro-in-law is an international pilot and thus travels a lot — he definitely needs one, for many of the exact reasons you mention.

    My three teenage nephews? Not so much.

    For a lot of people they seem to be primarily devices to facilitate walking with a downward position of the neck and averted eyes, with the purpose of causing people not using one to have to avoid bumping into them.

    They also seem to infect their users with the tyranny of the immediate: all queries must be answered RIGHT NOW! How does that help foster patience in an already ridiculously impatient people? Exactly — it doesn’t.

    • We must have been writing at the same time. I left some stuff out, and FPR doesn’t allow edits, so I replied to myself addressing some of the issues you raised.

      I thought I had done a pretty good job in two posts saying, not implying, that it’s about using them “wisely and humanely,” so inferring I meant “simply a tool” was a surprise to me, but communication is hard.

      • ~~I thought I had done a pretty good job in two posts saying, not implying, that it’s about using them “wisely and humanely,” so inferring I meant “simply a tool” was a surprise to me, but communication is hard.~~

        I guess I’ve had so many conversations with folks who put those two things together — wise use and ‘just a tool’ — that I inferred that that’s what you were doing as well. I see that your take is more nuanced than that.

  6. Bo Grimes’ point is valid that humane and wise use is necessary, and possible. But I recently ditched the iPhone. I had threatened to do so countless times but then it broke. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars to repair or replace it, I opted for a cheap flip phone. I don’t think this will be a permanent replacement for a smart phone. I anticipate getting one again some day. But I realized that I needed to “unplug” a little bit.

    I do have legitimate business uses for my phone, and it offers many conveniences that I can’t replicate well by some other means. Evernote is great for storing odd facts, quotes, and documents. My calendar app allows me to schedule stuff on the move and remind myself of the day’s events to come, all while allowing my staff to see my events and to also add appointments when they schedule them. I can research cases or statutes while waiting for a hearing if something suddenly comes to mind before court. However, the phone still presents distractions. And while most of my distractions involved reading Front Porch Republic and The Imaginative Conservative, I would do so reflexively, often at home, and in view of my kids. And I noticed that it affected my ability to focus. Or to sit still. I felt the need to do something. I have had minor withdrawal symptoms having switched to the “dumb phone.” And I don’t consider myself unaware or incapable of using a smart phone wisely. But for me, and plenty of other intelligent and self-aware individuals I know, it becomes a subtly distracting influence that creeps into your life in unanticipated ways. And in my experience, it does decrease the ability to focus on other pleasures, even if you know better than to allow it.

    Perhaps Jason Peters’ article overstates the point a bit. Perhaps one can use a smart phone wisely and humanely. But I don’t think most people will. And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of educating. For all the good they provide, I think they do and will continue to undermine our culture and society. Perhaps they don’t have this impact on every individual. But I suspect they do so for most individuals. And of course, it’s the user’s manner of use and not the phone itself that creates these problems. But do we realistically expect that there will be a cultural shift toward responsible, humane, and wise use of a smartphone? I won’t claim one should not have a smart phone. But I also think many people’s lives would improve if they opted out of the growing “necessity” of having one. Maybe I’ll change my mind after a few months of going sans smart phone, but for now I’m content to try the experiment myself.

  7. Wow, who knew there was a community of FPR lurkers who feel very, very strongly that smartphones must not be denigrated? 13 comments is a massive amount for the site. I look forward to strongly worded posts denouncing video games, drones, and twitter, since that sort of thing is apparently what drives commenters out of the woodwork these days…

  8. Your article is a comical post that shows how left-brained wordies (see Iain McGilchrist) can’t understand their own massive tombs and word clouds. Take a gander at that massive page bloat that constitutes “the canon” and its Clarissas. Information overload and distraction started with your damn books! Also consider Leslie Fiedler’s evisceration of that moron genre called American Fiction. I will remind you that contemporary sitcoms, movies and books are absolutely overflowing with classical plots and allusions. Only a college professor couldn’t take the hint about the ingenious layering of contemporary art. I’m not saying it’s tasteful or moral, but don’t pretend you are the only educated person in the room. Part of the distraction is the overwhelming weight placed on working people by leisured aristocrats rehashing obscurity.

    I remember Jane Jacobs putting her money where her mouth was but Godfrey Reggio has “said” more insightful things about our times than all of your scholastics and outmoded fuddy-duddies who can’t muster a creative response to the present. I remember Chesterton saying that Cobbett could not only read between the lines but also through the book. Here is proof that I have read way more than you and see farther than you on the very terms you deride. (Note: I’m a mathematics, physics and computer major, so imagine how underwhelmed I am at your dandyism.)

    The spray-tanned Ronald McDonald fights Capital HillBilly:

    1. Like Reagan, Trump is a Washington outsider. Reagan was twice elected governor of
    2. Reagan was dismissed as a serious candidate, and so was Trump.
    3. Trump and Reagan were both attacked by the establishment as being extreme and simplistic.
    4. Trump shares Reagan’s “passion” for what he believes in.
    5. Trump espouses similar views as Reagan on illegal immigration.
    6. Trump is a straight-talker, like Reagan.
    7. Trump began as a Democrat before becoming a Republican.
    8. Trump, like Reagan, has been a TV star.
    9. Trump seeks to follow in Reagan’s footsteps and succeed a liberal, big-government Democratic president.
    10. Trump and Reagan both opposed runaway public employees’ unions.
    11. Trump shares Reagan’s overall aim as president: to make America great again.
    12. Trump favors tax reduction, as did Reagan.
    13. Trump, like Reagan, is pro-life.
    14. Trump and Reagan both have defended gun rights and the Second Amendment.
    15. Reagan was the first president who had been divorced. President Trump would be the second.

    But what do I know… I just saw him explaining his stance on immigration in the 1995 movie Virtuosity.

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