We are about six months in on a great technological experiment: the combination of me plus a smart phone.
For many years I had been happily communicating with a flip phone, but then technology passed me by. Gradually, one by one all my friends converted to smart phones. There were apps for that at first. Then it became something you couldn’t live without. Everyone but me had a smart phone.
As the local resident Luddite, I was content to reflect on how smart phones dominated everyone else’s life. But not mine. A classic photo is taken on a beautiful spring day. The sun is out, poking through puffy white clouds. The trees have just bloomed, and parent birds are diving for worms to bring back to new hatchlings in the nests. Back on earth, teenagers are not aware of the fresh air and sunshine. They sit on a bench taking in the bounty of their tiny screens, texting to each other (sometimes, sitting next to each other) as the spring world bursts into new life.
If you can only call on a cell phone, there is nothing else to distract in between calls. For me, that was all about to change. My new company provided a corporate smart phone. It was an Apple I-plus plus plus, or something. It could be used to make calls. But then, so much more. You could GPS. You could face time. You could surf the internet. You could talk to it (there is a woman inside the smart phone) who would then surf the internet for you. You could play little smart phone games, by yourself, or with hundreds of friends also playing little smart phone games. Apparently every aspect of humanity was app-ed and could be loaded on the phone.
I resisted the allure of the phone and tried to remain true to my Luddite self. But over time, I found that it takes a lot of self control to resist a smart phone. Studies have actually quantified this. A smart phone doles out little biochemical rewards every time you use it and accomplish something. In an evolutionary sense, this is a trick by the phone developers. Back on the savannah, there were no smart phones when our ancestors were being chased by saber tooth tigers. So the rewards for using a smart phone are mimicking something else. They are not related to core human survival functions.
When I think about it, and when I am not using my smart phone to have the opportunity to think about it, the mindless texting and little cell phone games represent the end of contemplation. Before, human beings had a lot of unorganized thought time during the day. It could be while walking, or riding the subway, or taking a shower. You would be hopping out the door to catch a bus in minutes flat, and then fall into a dream. All of that contemplation used to be a good thing. It provided for grounding and long term awareness of the universe. Without contemplation, all that is left is texting and tweeting. The reward for not thinking is only a smart phone swipe away.
At this moment, I get to write. That is because I am giving my students their midterm exam. One student’s calculator died, so I lent her my smart phone with the calculator app. I have no smart phone, at least for now. Instead of texting, I will contemplate my navel and the overall meaning of life. In a few minutes, the exam will end and the iPhone will be back in front of my nose. Maybe I will have discovered a cure for cancer by then.