The much awaited iPhone 6 reportedly sold 10 million units in its first three days, accompanied by the now expected fanfare, fervour, and even a hint of scandal as the ‘Bendgate’ saga unfolded. What better moment to reflect on the role the iPhone and smartphones generally have played in our lives?
The best way to stop my 18 month-old-son crying is to let him play with my wife’s iPhone. The best way to get him started again is to take the iPhone away. With a disturbing speed and intensity he’s mastered the touchscreen, learned to navigate the apps, takes charming photographs and videos, and managed to call people at random and send obscure text messages.
I’m a little late to the smartphone era, having been given one only this year by my employer. Alas, the employer giveth and the employer taketh away, and since being made redundant a month or so ago I am back to using a regular old stupidPhone.
So I’m in an excellent position to stand back and reflect upon the rise of the smartphone and what it might mean for society; its attractions and its perils.
Why is it disturbing to watch young children play with a smart phone?
For one thing, the unreality of the smartphone bothers me. It is an artefact par excellence, and as such its construction and operation are one step removed from nature, reflecting human utility rather than the reality of the natural world. We are entering into an era where virtual objects will carry as much weight in our minds as real ones. Yet the behaviour, the logic of virtual objects is artificial. I am concerned that the deeper we go into virtual reality, the further we get away from actual reality, which is, in case we have forgotten, the world in which we really exist.
The smartphone may be unreal but it is really engaging. The colours, sounds, music and haptic feedback are not far removed from videogames and, by extension, poker machines. As much as I’ve enjoyed videogames, I also know how addictive, enticing, and debilitating in excess they can be. Not only is the smartphone the perfect platform for a plethora of mindlessly addictive games, but the whole device itself attains a kind of game-like attraction. Imagine as an infant, looking around a world of strange new objects, only to find one object with a dazzling array of colour and sound, that responds to your touch and is, as evidenced by the attention your parents lavish upon it, clearly one of the most important things in your world.
As someone who grew up with TV and video games, isn’t it hypocritical for me to say that the smartphone is ‘unnatural’? Surely my parents thought the same thing about game consoles and computer screens when I was growing up?
Indeed, if we go back far enough it turns out that Socrates thought the same thing about writing, that alluring new technology with its hidden pitfalls:
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
This is a consistent theme in any debate over new technology: that the advantages a technology brings can undermine our skills, our character, even our enjoyment of life. For Socrates, writing may have had benefits but the benefits belonged to writing not to us. Relying on writing meant no longer relying on memory or on oral culture. Writing gave us the ability to record many things, but it took from us the necessity of remembering.
What difference does it make? Surely the benefits of written language vastly outweigh the merits of an extensive memory? Perhaps they do – but we are in no position to judge. We are children of the written word and if we have lost anything of value we cannot even imagine the nature of the loss.
The same opaque trade-off has occurred countless times in the advance of human civilisation. But that doesn’t mean we can’t critically assess or resist the deal we are offered in such transactions. For example, we may not know what it was like to be Socrates, but there was only one Socrates whereas countless others have since learned of him through the writings of his student Plato. And after all, Socrates’ fear was not with writing per se but the mistaken impression that writing alone would bring wisdom. Perhaps he would have a different view if he had known that two millennia later the words of the wise would sit accessible to all but unread by most.
Socrates’ concern is about wisdom rather than writing, and we can surely appreciate the substance of his concern apart from the issue of memory and the written word. In that case, we ought to likewise assess our underlying concerns with new technology such as smartphones, and address those concerns head-on. After all, who among us is entirely free of hypocrisy?
So while it may be prudent to reduce the amount of exposure a growing child has to advanced technology perhaps the real motive is my own sense of disquiet at how detached we all have become from nature, from reality, from making things with our own hands rather than playing with other people’s gadgets and toys.
We live in a reality defined by the consumption of other people’s products, a reality shaped more by the superficial intersection of technology and commercial culture than by the timeless influences of our humanity. We don’t have to ditch the smartphones but nor should we unthinkingly allow them to shape our lives under the guise of convenience and enjoyment.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.