Dear Smartphone, I Quit.
Part I: Convenience, Creativity and The Digital Age
I’d gladly be a luddite self-righteously spinning the dial of my rotary phone but at some point the upkeep of digital disengagement becomes complicated and self-defeating. Simplicity is more convenient until it becomes the victim of its own pursuit. That compromise is a balance that I’ve struggled to find.
Technology has a strange tendency to drive activity rather than facilitate it. It isn’t the technology itself, as it only seeks ease and convenience. It is the basic human ambition behind the technology, the ambition that always wants more than it needs. Excess is a distraction. I was late to cellphones and social media. After a quick decision to take a break from college and move to Montana — the twenty-four-hour drive and the reliability of my car posed rational concern — I bought a cellphone. A simple brick Nokia, the phone landed me in a six-month fight with my provider over nefarious roaming charges. Hundreds of dollars later, I quit my first cellphone.
Holding out slightly longer than logical, I bought another cellphone and over the next ten years I’d only be without a cellphone one more time. One too many comments about how great it would be for my career and I bought my first iPhone in New York City at Broadway and Astor Place. The iPhone 4, an opulent tool. It was fragile, expensive, and I couldn’t image how it would be any more useful than the Macbook that I already owned, and worked off of. The iPhone proved surprisingly agile and I quickly integrated it into nearly every aspect of my life. Five years and one upgrade later, I find the absurdity of my reliance and the diminishing returns of my time investment increasingly frustrating.
Looking out of the window four stories above La Jolla, three young women are sitting at a café thumbing at their phones. With half-stoned smiles, nervous with anticipation, they occasionally gesture at each other. Whatever the platform, from this distance the activity all looks the same. On the sidewalk a teenager walks by with his face down, earbuds in as he swipes at his screen. Then a middle aged man approaches with his phone to his ear. Every couple of minutes the scene repeats itself. I once saw a high school kid walk phone first into a street sign. He didn’t even look up, he took a step to the right and just kept on walking. Earlier this year, I was hired by a major international corporation to write a letter asking employees to please refrain from walking and texting because it is the number one cause of injury at work.
Countless opinion pieces and cutting one-liners have been written indicting the millennial generation for their fixation on technology but device dependency isn’t only an under thirty-five issue. These articles — easily searchable on any smartphone — cover everything from the pornification of tragedy to the security risks of mobile encryption. But what I haven’t heard discussed, and I’m more interested in, is the cultural extinction of solitary contemplation.
Recent studies show that digital novelty addiction is having a physical effect on our collective frontal lobe. Functionally speaking, digital addiction behaves like any other addiction. It physically reconstructs the brain creating a dependency that normalizes the stimulus. The effect of addiction on the brain and the science behind it is nothing new. What is new is the realization that digital novelty and smartphones are addictive. This information has been spreading over the last few years, but as my relationship with technology has always been fraught with assumed necessity and mutinous purging, I find it especially interesting.
For every convenience there is a price. How would my creativity be effected by returning to a dumb phone? How has five years of smartphone use altered my attention span? Is it a luddite’s delusion or would I see a real, tangible change without the distraction of my digital accomplice? For all of my Jeremiah Johnson romanticism, the reality of quitting my iPhone is equally intimidating and enticing.
As a writer, contemplation is my greatest professional tool. The ability to sit and get lost in an idea is essential to the creative process and to my profession. I don’t believe art isn’t as good as it once was, but if that were true, it’s because artists are too busy managing and digesting content to create art. Limitations inspire. The beauty of a black and white photo is in the lack of color. What it is unable to be informs what it is. There is a depth of beauty in limitation that requires true commitment. The creativity that kind of commitment affords is evident in all of the greatest work. Contemplation is the marrow of that type of work.
Whether or not smartphones are the unparalleled instruments of progress or a revolutionary waste of time may very well be in the hands of the operator, but if it is a tool, what exactly is it building? Perceived value, actual value and life quality should be the constant equation of our consumerism. As for me, I’m ready to look for a more useful tool.