Just give me a moment…

Our phones, our apps, our selves.

Photo: Evet Jean

I recently began compiling a list of all the ways I use my phone to monitor myself. It all started because I was trying to cut down on my phone use, and as so often happens, there’s an app for that. I downloaded Moment, which provides daily updates summarizing the total time spent on your phone the day before. I was shocked to find that I was spending on average a minimum of three hours a day on my phone.

Moment gives me insights, if I want them, about how exactly all this time adds up. But I mostly find that nothing revelatory comes from these stats — a few minutes here, a few minutes there. I picked up my phone 82 times yesterday, answering messages (in iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook messenger), perhaps checking the time or weather, scrolling Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I used a photo uploader because I want to print off a handful of the more than 15,000 photos that live on my phone’s camera roll. I use my phone to set reminders for myself. My to-do list lives on my phone, mostly. When I don’t know what I should be doing, I look at my phone — either to find a meaningful task or to waste time.

When I wrote down all the things I use my phone to track, I came up with over 18 ways that I monitor the activities of myself and others. These include deeply personal data like my menstrual cycle and the progression of my current pregnancy, or potentially revealing information about how many steps I take a day, and where. Google Maps knows the address of my home and office, as well as the address of my therapist. Google Photos can succinctly show me what I was doing a year or two ago, to the day. I use Yelp to keep track of places I’d like to eat, and Foursquare sends me alerts when I visit a new area, suggesting places I’d like to visit based on where I’ve been before. I use AccuWeather because it can tell me the “RealFeel®” and chance of rain as I figure out my outfit for the day. When I order food via Seamless, I track its progress from my phone, to the restaurant kitchen and then to my door. With Instacart I can watch in real time as someone else buys my groceries for me, asking them to please refund me if that specific brand of ricotta is not available.

Duolingo tells me how I’m progressing in my Italian practice (4% fluent!), Zillow tells me about houses for rent or sale in my neighborhood, even though I have no intention of moving any time soon. The Egg Timer app — used only rarely, but too valuable to delete — tells me how many minutes stand between me and my perfect boiled egg (generally six minutes, depending on the size of the egg).

Like most people with a smart phone, I of course also track my own interactions in the social media worlds of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — seeing how many likes and replies I have racked up — as well as observing how others are doing. If there is anything unusual about this it is only that I spend less time on my phone than most other smart phone users — the average US consumer spends 5 hours a day on their mobile device. Certainly I’ve had days when I’ve been sick in bed and spent five hours or more scrolling to pass the time. I also use other devices for specific tasks — my laptop for longer projects, an iPad if I’m cooking from a recipe online, a TV to access my streaming services, and a Kindle where I do most of my more substantial reading.

There are ways in which all this activity brings me joy and makes my life fuller. But there are also many times when this digital labor feels like exactly that — work. Take my phone’s inbuilt step counter. After habitually checking the number of steps I take on a given day, I told my brother I was thinking of buying a more advanced fitness tracker. He asked me exactly why I would want such a thing. Was I going to review my data at the end of the day and then urgently make up the remaining steps if I was short of my goal? Well, no. But this is how data works. We begin tracking for the sake of tracking itself — I can know how many steps I take a day, so why shouldn’t I check? Do I get a little thrill when I pass the 10,000 steps benchmark? Of course I do. But often the result of this constant push for self-improvement that these devices, data and apps encourage, is an end unto itself. Or rather, the end is only more data, more apps and more devices. We are pushed towards consumption for its own sake.

At the opposite end of this push towards data production and analysis we find what is offered as its salve: self care. An umbrella concept that can cover activities as diverse as making a budget, getting enough sleep, meditating and getting spa treatments, self care is, fundamentally, about remembering that our lived experiences are embodied, and fueled by fundamental things like rest, nutrition, exercise and relaxation. Self care draws us out of the digital world and reminds us to switch off our devices, pay our bills, go for a walk, get a health check, take our meds, eat a healthy meal and get to bed on time.

The app that tracks my phone use can be seen as part of this complex push and pull we feel both towards and away from our devices and digitally-lived experiences. Named Moment, because its aim is to encourage you to be present in the current moment — while time on your phone, presumably, takes you away from it — it takes a pedagogical tone, promising to help you learn to manage screen time. The end goal is less phone time, but the irony that this is achieved through a phone based app is unmissable. It is only by spending time on your phone, according to Moment, that you are able to learn how to cut back.

Kevin Holesh, the creator of moment encapsulates this conundrum in the app’s press kit:

I wrote Moment for myself. I find myself ignoring my family and friends in favor of my iPhone. Sometimes that’s okay, like when I’m looking up who starred in Men In Black with Will Smith on IMDB, but I really should be concentrating on the present moment and the people I love around me.

As digital users we are both encouraged towards making the most of our devices’ capacities, while also chided for what this means for our ‘real world’ experiences and relationships. Kolesh outlines this two-pronged approach in which phones are good, but only so long as you monitor your use of them to achieve a healthy balance between real world and digital world experiences:

Moment’s goal isn’t to get you to put down your phone forever and go live in the woods. That’s absurd. There are many, many advantages to having an always connected smartphone. Moment’s goal is to promote balance in your life.

As smart phone users we are pulled towards digital worlds in which we can know more than ever — about our own practices, the lives of friends, online communities, local environments and those far away — but at the same time we are warned, admonished and encouraged out of these worlds, sometimes by the very devices that bring us there in the first place.

Our phones can bring us closer to people we may not connect with otherwise, but draw us away from the people who we are in physical proximity with. But what if this disconnection is intentional? The bored commuter reaches for their phone to be enveloped in a bubble of music, news and entertainment for the duration of their ride. The tired parent turns to their Instagram feed to find camaraderie and shared experience during times that can be lonely, isolating, and ultimately, boring.

Photo: Evet Jean

Fears about the impact of new media on our brains and bodies are as old as media itself — dating back to fears about the information overload that would surely follow the invention of the printing press. Similar fears now abound around digital technologies, devices and platforms, adhering particularly to concepts of constant availability and the potential for addiction. What links these fears, spread across a 300 year history of communication technologies, is not only their similarity but also their emphasis on the power of the media, which is necessarily built on a conception of media consumers as lacking in power and agency.

As media scholar Nancy Baym points out, all media is inherently social, as it allows people to make meaning together:

There is nothing more “social” about “social media” than there is about postcards, landline telephones, television shows, newspapers, books, or cuneiform.

The internet, Baym argues, was already used for social purposes before it became colonized by social media businesses. This shift towards “social media” as a specific category of branded platforms has come with a focus on the user end— that is, on the content we produce as well as the habits and practices that emerge from our use. But this focus works to obscure the economic and power relations that underpin our devices and platforms. As Baym points out, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is currently the third richest person (although all of the top ten are men) in tech, sitting behind Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Zuckerberg and his peers are made wealthy through our networks of content and social relations, which are themselves meaningful and increasingly indispensable to so many of us.

If media is inherently social then our relationship with contemporary devices and its associated media (phones, and social media) is inherently conflicted. We as consumers are far more savvy than we are often given credit for. We know that our phones both enable new relationships while potentially distracting us from old ones. We know that we sometimes spend more time on our phones than we would like, that we need to schedule phone-free time, to allow our minds time to wander, to have an early night and a better night’s sleep. But we also know that by problematizing our media use, our device makers, app developers and social media platforms continually put the onus on us to police and regulate our own habits and practices. We are at once both responsible for maintaining thriving online networks, as well as healthy bodies and ‘real world’ relationships. And, as always, there’s an app for that…