Every recent trip you've taken on public transport has featured a quiet hive of humans gently prodding slabs of capacitive glass. In Australia we spend, on average, an hour and forty minutes each day on their smartphone.
According to usage monitoring app Quality Time, I spend about two hours and twenty minutes a day on mine, and activate my screen thousands of times per week. The application sits in my notification drawer, haranguing me daily about the duration and frequency of my smartphone interactions. It’s an ineffective balm for an imagined addiction, bound completely to the medium it wants to diminish.
We've been here before, and we’ll be here again. Smartphones aren't corrupting our lives, our brains, or our social spaces. We’re going to be okay. Calm down.
In a spoken-word viral video, ‘Look up’ , the fourth top-trending video in the UK last year, director Gary Turk urges us to jettison technology, through the description of vast wasteland emptied through the scourge of smartphones:
“Now the park is so quiet it gives me a chill
See no children outside and the swings hanging still
There’s no skipping, no hopscotch, no church and no steeple
We’re a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people
So look up from your phone, shut down the display
Take in your surroundings, make the most of today
Just one real connection is all it can take
To show you the difference that being there can make”
The video was incredibly popular. It has 49,832,779 views. The video’s statistics show viewers have spent 272 years watching it (around 136 of these years would have passed on a smartphone screen, assuming Youtube’s estimates are correct), it’s driven 36,423 subscriptions to Turk’s Youtube channel and it’s been shared 202,905 times. His lament speaks to us — for hundreds of millions of minutes, we've been looking down at Turk’s over-sweetened sentiment.
The zombie-smartphone-apocalypse wasteland that Turk describes in ‘Look up’ is fictional, but his bad poetry speaks to an anxiety that gnaws at each of us. Are we seeing the end of face-to-face social interaction? Is it time to hurl our beloved slabs in to the nearest bubbling brook, and instead spend our days clasping hands with well-dressed friends in grassy fields?
There’s a raft of similar digital warnings (some are genuinely funny parodies). Studies warn against ‘smartphone addiction’ and fear of being without a smartphone has been termed ‘nomophobia’. I've been harangued on the train by a beret-adorned passenger who cajoled me for preferring to peruse my smartphone over gazing at the grey, meaningless train interior, or out at Sydney’s equally meaningless and depressing suburban landscape.
Buick recently sponsored the ‘#InTheMoment’ campaign, in which you post a pledge to ‘put the phone down for a minute’….on Twitter and Facebook. Other companies offer ‘energy optimisers’ — presumably inert stickers that ‘reverse the impacts of smartphone addiction’. This modern, manufactured smartphone catastrophe is astonishingly bankable.
Babycakes Romero, a London-based photographer, chronicled what he described as “Death of Conversation”, brought about by smartphones. The project creates a social zombie apocalypse, populated with limping, slurring humans infected by the smartphone virus.
If you were so inclined, you could generate the same soulful photographic lament of public social decay, set decades in the past. What we’re seeing in public spaces is not significant, despite the fact there’s money to be made off the anxiety scratching at the corners of our minds.
Looking back into the past, we find a set of similar techno-panics, blended with whatever anxiety held sway in that era. Tom Standage compiled a list of moral panics for Wired magazine in 2006. The Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee wrote “does the telephone make men more active or more lazy? Does [it] break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?” about the landline telephone in 1926.
If the Knights of Columbus had access to a soft-focus lens clamped onto a DSLR, video editing software and an internet connection, they might have drawn hundreds of years of viewing time from the lives of the populous, like Gary Turk did last year.
We characterise smartphones as vessels of addiction, but the same fallacy comes into sharp relief when we look closer. Neurochemistry does play a role in how fervently we engage with social media, because we’re granted a miniature dopamine hit every time a novel piece of social information is pushed through to us. If we’re in a social situation or trying to get some work done (writing a Medium think-piece, perhaps), it’s useful to become practised at ignoring social media, or alternatively, temporarily disable it. This isn't irrational or misplaced.
What’s forgotten in scare-stories about social media addiction is that reward pathways are not unique to social media — food, television, computer games, music and alcohol all interface with our grey matter in related ways. We've dealt effectively with these technologies. There’s no reason to feel smartphones ought to inspire a novel format of panic.
It’s interesting to me that stories about smartphones wresting control from our conscious minds and hijacking mesolimbic reward pathways are themselves designed to stimulate autonomous clicks from distracted, dopamine-hit-seeking humans trawling through streams of information on digital devices. In some sense I enjoy the irony, but it’s irritating too. Smartphone addiction scare stories are ripped from neuroscientific context that would give us a clearer understanding of the impact of social media on the electrified meat between our ears.
Smartphone anxiety hasn't emerged solely in response to a misperceived ‘social deterioration’, nor to a similarly falsified epidemic of addiction. I suspect it’s also due partly to the sheer visibility of technology. Engagement with a smartphone has become a default state of existence in situations where there’s no need for social engagement — mostly, in public spaces like trains and buses. Yes, we spend one hour and forty minutes plugged in to smartphones each day, but we spend nearly double that amount of time with our eyes affixed to the television — a stream of pre-curated content designed to dull the senses, not stimulate them. But, we watch television inside the bounds of our homes. We engage with smartphones in public.
There are valid concerns about the impact of screen-time in childhood development, but you can’t apply developmental issues to adulthood. There are other times when a backlash is justified — Google Glass was a profound misstep, but the emergence of bad technology does not mean technology is bad. Perhaps the HoloLens will be better.
Any technology that dares become enter public space must undergo a ritual backlash, based on mis-attributed ailments, neuro-bunk and misconception. We’ll see this pattern emerge around smartwatches and VR/AR headsets in coming months (we already are, to some degree).
Our collective anxieties ebb and flow, as do our collective tendencies to be unnerved by rapid technological change. As little machines becomes smaller and eventually, become part of our daily adornment, we’re going to repeat this irritating, odd ritual.