travel and the lure of the smartphone

Alan Turing’s notion of a “universal machine” is the founding insight of the computer revolution, and today’s smartphones are the fullest embodiment of that idea we’ve yet realized, which is what makes them irresistible to so many of us. Many of us, I suppose, have at times made a mental list of the devices we once owned that have been replaced by smartphones: calculators, clocks, cameras, maps, newspapers, music players, tape recorders, notepads….

Earlier this year I described my return to a dumbphone and the many advantages accruing to me therefrom, but as my recent trip to London and Rome drew closer, I started to sweat. Could I maintain on my travels my righteous technological simplification? This was a particular worry of mine because I am also a packing minimalist: I have spent whole summers abroad living out of a backpack and a smallish suitcase. Maps wouldn’t add much weight, but a camera would be more significant; and then I’d need either to carry my backpack everywhere I went, to hold the camera, or else take a dedicated camera bag. Moreover, my wife was not going on this trip, and I wanted to stay in touch with her, especially by sending photos of the various places I visited — and to do so immediately, not once I returned.

As the day of departure drew nearer, that desire to maintain the fullest possible contact with my beloved loomed larger in my mind. This reminded me that I had recently spoken and written about the relationship between distraction and addiction:

If you ask a random selection of people why we’re all so distracted these days — so constantly in a state of what a researcher for Microsoft, Linda Stone, has called “continuous partial attention” — you’ll get a somewhat different answer than you would have gotten thirty years ago. Then it would have been “Because we are addicted to television.” Fifteen years ago it would have been, “Because we are addicted to the Internet.” But now it’s “Because we are addicted to our smartphones.”

All of these answers are both right and wrong. They’re right in one really important way: they link distraction with addiction. But they’re wrong in an even more important way: we are not addicted to any of our machines. Those are just contraptions made up of silicon chips, plastic, metal, glass. None of those, even when combined into complex and sometimes beautiful devices, are things that human beings can become addicted to.

Then what are we addicted to? … We are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value — our very being — that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers.

Was my reluctance to be separated from my wife an example of this tendency? I’d like to think it’s something rather different: not an addiction to validation from peers, but a long-standing dependence on intimacy with my life partner. But my experience is certainly on the same continuum with the sometimes pathological need for validation that I worried over in that essay. So while I think that my need to stay in touch with Teri is healthier than the sometimes desperate desire to be approved by one’s peer group, they have this in common: they remind us how much our technologies of communication are not substitutes for human interaction but enormously sophisticated means of facilitating it.

A camera would have added some weight to my backpack, but not all that much. Packing minimalism played a role in my decision to pop the SIM card out of my dumbphone and dig my iPhone out of a drawer — note that I had never sold it or given it away! I was too cowardly for that — and use it on my trip as camera and communicator (iMessage and Twitter) and news-reader and universal map and restaurant-discovery vehicle and step-counter and…. But it wasn’t the decisive thing.

I do wonder how the trip might have been different if I had maintained my resolve. I certainly could’ve gotten some better photos if I had brought my camera, especially if I had also carried my long lens. (Smartphones have wide-angle lenses, which are great in many circumstances but very frustrating in others.) Maybe I would’ve sent Teri cards and letters instead of text messages, and she’d have keepsakes that our grandchildren could someday see. (Somehow I doubt that our grandchildren will be able to browse through my Instagram page.) And then I’d have uploaded all my photos when I got home and we’d have sat down to go through them all at once. But that’s not how it went.

Well, so it goes. I’ve been back for two days now, and probably should get out the dumbphone and switch my SIM card back into it. I’m sure I’ll do that soon. Very soon. Any day now.

“internet addiction” and other fictions

Imagine a child who’s on her computer all day long because she’s playing World of Warcraft. Imagine another who is talking with friends and looking at photos on Facebook. Imagine a third relentless in his pursuit of hi-def porn videos. And imagine a fourth — this will be hard, I know — who is learning how to code and has found a great many like-minded people in the coding subreddit. Taken together these kids make it clear why there’s no such thing as internet addiction.

“But they’re online all the time and we can’t get them to interact with real human beings!” their parents shout, in unison. “They’re addicted to screens!” To which the proper answer is, Well, some of them are interacting with real human beings, for better or worse, and — more important — none of them is addicted to screens. They’re addicted to certain experiences that they are getting access to via their computers. That is not at all the same thing.

Indeed, no one has ever been addicted to screens, or even addicted to the internet. Neither screens as such nor the internet as such have the power to enrapture people. Now, some might reply that this is a frivolous response, that such language is an easily-understood shorthand. But I would counter that it’s a highly misleading shorthand, because it teaches us to conflate extremely different experiences, to place them under a single umbrella, which is exactly where they don’t belong. Each of the four children I described above is moved by very different interests; and indeed, it would be easy to write more detailed stories for each of them that would show their behavior to be, in particular contexts, either more or less culpable or worrisome than my current bare-bones narration makes them sound.

So my suggestion would be this: whenever you hear that someone is suffering from “internet addiction,” just ask what, precisely, is it on the internet that he or she is addicted to. And get them to define addiction while you’re at it. And treat the whole exchange as the beginning of a conversation about a person, not a definitive diagnosis.

Nick Carr on “addiction” addiction

Nick Carr, talking about our collective move to Internet immersion, makes some excellent points about the way we talk about technological change, the first of them similar to a point I made recently about how the ways we talk about the real and potential social impacts of new technologies allow us to distance ourselves from thinking they apply to us:

The problem with the addiction metaphor [to describe Internet use] … is that it presents the normal as abnormal and hence makes it easy for us to distance ourselves from our own behavior and its consequences. By dismissing talk of “Internet addiction” as rhetorical overkill, which it is, we also avoid undertaking an honest examination of how deeply our media devices have been woven into our lives and how they are shaping those lives in far-reaching ways, for better and for worse….
The addiction metaphor also distorts the nature of technological change by suggesting that our use of a technology stems from a purely personal choice — like the choice to smoke or to drink. An inability to control that choice becomes, in this view, simply a personal failing. But while it’s true that, in the end, we’re all responsible for how we spend our time, it’s an oversimplification to argue that we’re free “to choose” whether and how we use computers and cell phones, as if social norms, job expectations, familial responsibilities, and other external pressures had nothing to do with it. The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.