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Are we looking at our phones more than each other?

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first hand-held mobile phone. It’s hard to quantify the changes that have occurred over the last 50 years of phone technology. Their raison d’etre is to be more connected- something we now have to an unfathomable degree. But is it also possible that being constantly connected has in some important sense, left us more disconnected?

3 mins

April 3, 2023

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In 1909, E.M. Forster published a prescient short story called 'The Machine Stops'. The story's main characters live in a subterranean world where travel to earth’s surface is unnecessary and undesirable, and communication is made through instant messaging/video conferencing machines from the isolated rooms in which people live.

It’s a mechanical and disenchanted world in which the main character finds himself desiring more connection with the natural world. While Forster’s imagined world is not quite ours, the theme of technologically mediated disconnection is one that seems to resonate today.

The handheld mobile phone is now a half-century old, though it’s only in the last 25 years that we’ve really witnessed its incredible revolutions in our lives. We have moved in leaps and bounds from the days of the mobile that could save ten text messages and a limited address book, to the ‘everything devices’ that we carry around in our pockets. A panoply of powerful applications is never more than an arm’s length away: maps, fitness apps, every kind of social media and news outlet, entertainment, banking…the list goes on and on. Staggeringly, we have more access to information on our mobile phones than the President of the United States did during the Iraq war. The interaction with our phones and their applications is of course two-way; our devices track our every movement, they listen to us in order to tailor advertising, as we become the unwitting subjects of surveillance capitalism. In the last decade, mobile phones have become almost mandatory for anyone who doesn’t want to feel like a social pariah – ordering food, getting planes and trains, buying concert tickets – some of which are now impossible without a smartphone.

While phones have reduced the friction in getting a thousand different tasks done, and in many ways enhanced and expanded our connection to others, they have also changed us in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Our attention is constantly being degraded and our sleep patterns disturbed; we are more atomised despite being more connected, and a world of teenage (and often adult) insecurity is nursed through social media. The persuasive design of our mobile phones means that on average, we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day, often being the first thing we look at in the morning and the last thing we do at night (the Center for Humane Technology offers tips on helping ‘disarm’ our phones).

"Our arms have grown so long that we can no longer tell what our hands are doing."

Mobile technology has made it possible for us to live at a remove from many of the experiences of life. As American professor Helena Norberg-Hodge put it in her TED talk, “our arms have grown so long that we can no longer tell what our hands are doing.” Or as the late Swiss novelist Max Frisch laments, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” Again, this is likely to be damaging on several levels, though one of them is surely that we find it far more challenging to be present to the moment we are in, for we are so often not actually experiencing it. What is lost in disembodied communication or experience is that we receive information instead of embodied experience. With this loss, a certain register of feeling is muted, as American artist Jenny Odell writes, “As the body disappears so does our ability to empathise”.  It is in a similar vein that Sherry Turkle commented, “we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection.” In a world dominated by connectivity, we lose our ability to make sense of ourselves and one another.

Much of life is lived in virtual worlds where it’s easy to be distracted from the messy reality and pain of life, as comedian Louis C.K. observes. The most important and enriching things in life are not gamified to keep our attention – there is no persuasive design on spending time in community or in contemplation. Yet these are the places where we gain valuable perspective, where our lives are deepened and enriched.

It will always be tempting to look at our phones rather than each other, but by doing so we trade the opportunity to engage with life as it is. St. Paul instructs his readers in the Bible’s book of Ephesians to ‘lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted by the lusts of a lie’, and instead to ‘be renewed in the spirit of your mind’. This feels an apt exhortation to people who are made for connection, yet are living with a pale and disembodied imitation of it. 50 years of mobile phone evolution can boast of astronomical leaps in technology and creativity, but as Goethe’s cautionary poem of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice reminds us – it will take great wisdom and self-control to master our devices, rather than have them mastering us.

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