Dumb claims about smartphones

The Washington Post recently ran a photo essay dedicated to showing us “what [our] smartphone addiction actually looks like.” It’s a classic bit of public impersonal shaming that resonates strongly with what we already know about how smartphones have destroyed our capacity for genuine social connections. We don’t talk with each other anymore. We use our phones as technological barriers to avoid having to interact with the world around us. We would be so much better off if only we could break this addiction we have to these little boxes…

…except, of course, that most of what the article in question says is, at best, overly dramatic hyperbole. At worst, it’s just wrong. And it doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) take a Ph.D. to be able to see that.

For starters, I’m old enough to remember a world without mobile phones at all — smart, dumb, or anywhere in between — and I don’t recall that world being one where strangers fell into conversations with one another any more (or any less) often than they do now. It’s true that many people use their phones to build virtual walls between themselves and, say, their fellow passengers on a bus or subway. But the only thing new here is the object that people use for building those walls. Long before there were mobile phones in the streets — hell, long before there were cordless phones in people’s homes — public transit riders built their personal bubbles out of books and newspapers. And those were arguably far more effective at the task. Phones may be getting bigger, but they’ve still got nothing on a good (or even a bad) newspaper when it comes to blocking yourself off from conversations you don’t want to have.

And just where is this public world of anti-social, conversation-hating, self-absorbed smartphone users anyway? Am I simply visiting all the wrong coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, etc.? If we are all so hopelessly addicted to our phones that we can’t be bothered to interact with our friends and family, then why are these places always filled with the sounds of lively conversations? Why are encounters with your local public transit system more likely to find you wishing that the people seated behind you would just shut up already (’cause you really don’t need to learn as much as you are about who in their circle of friends is sleeping with whom) than to find you unnerved by the deathly isolated silence of those around you?

The sentiment expressed in the Post‘s sloppy diatribe is at least as old as the modern city. Perhaps even older. Gather a large number of people — enough that they can’t all possible know each other — in a relatively compact geographic area, and it won’t take long before some of them start to complain that they feel isolated, alienated, and anonymous. And, arguably, they’re right. But the problem here — if it really is a problem — has nothing to do with smartphones. Or Walkmen (which were the object of comparable hand-wringing when they first came along). Or newspapers. It’s a byproduct of living in a community that’s too large for most of the people you encounter everyday not to be strangers.

One last thought. The real irony of this particular story (for me, anyway) is that the person voicing this complaint is a photographer. Mind you, I’ve got nothing against photographers. And I don’t know anything about how this particular photographer does (or doesn’t) interact with the people he shoots. Maybe he makes a point of only photographing people after he’s established a genuine rapport with them (whatever that might mean). Maybe.

Still, this is someone who moves through public spaces, carrying an expensive technological device that he (presumably) routinely uses in ways that erect huge social barriers between himself and the people around him. Which stranger seems more approachable to you: the one standing on the corner poking at their iPhone, or the one holding a camera up to their face to get a shot of some couple across the street? If it’s socially alienating to interact with the world through a phone, how and why is it any less socially alienating to interact with the world through the lens of a camera?


  1. And I would argue that our portable technology actually creates more relationships and opportunities for new relationships because it instantly allows us to show pictures, share contact information, and to access more information about whatever subject comes up with whomever we happen to be with. This sharing leads to an enlargement of our personal worlds. I think what many people bemoan, myself included, is the ubiquitous image of a family sitting around a table or in their “family” room engrossed in their individual tablets.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You’re the first…on the entire site. Not just this post. :)

      I think you’re right that there’s something different — and, for many folks, more upsetting — about the intrusion of things like smartphones into private spaces, rather than public ones. People don’t necessarily expect to fall into deep conversation with every stranger they meet, but they are likely to have higher expectations for the people they actually live with.

      That said, the family that sits together while paying attention to various forms of mediated/technological distractions (instead of each other) is also a pretty old phenomenon. Think of all those sullen teens slouching on couches wearing headphones in the 80s and 90s. Or the television that held the family’s gaze (and supposedly substituted for conversation) in the 60s and 70s. Or even the trite stereotypes of 50s middle class suburbia, where Dad comes home from work and hides behind a newspaper in his chair all night.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *