The dark truth is that it’s become very hard to find anyone and certainly anything more interesting than a smartphone. We love our phones and would never want to give them up, but we are also subtly aware that these delightful gadgets bear a hidden cost. To say that we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot, it signals a darker notion; we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones and the constant attention they demand, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret, and excitement. We are addicted to our phones, not because we rely on them, but because we use them in a subconscious or conscious project of self-avoidance. They weren’t designed to harm us, but we may, and probably do, use them to injure ourselves.
Addiction sounds extreme, but it brings to light the dangers in a pervasive inclination; a habit of running away from the joys and terrors of self-knowledge. We can look up so much on our phones: we can, if we are inclined, check the population of Lima (8.73 million), what the powerhouse of the cell is (Mitochondria), the definition of ‘tautology’ (saying the same thing twice thought in different ways). Or perhaps the author of that fascinating quote, “what you survive makes you stronger” (Nietzsche). Yet, this constant resource has an unfortunate side effect- we consult our phones rather than ourselves.
It’s not that we actually know so many obscure facts. It’s that we already possess- in scattered, unpolished forms- the raw material from which a huge number of the very best insights and ideas could be formed if we only gave them enough time and attention. Almost since the beginning of time, we have prized the opportunity to get away from reminders of humanity and to immerse ourselves in nature. We have wanted to gaze out on the grey indifference of the ocean or the bright incalculable immensity of the starry sky. But our phones are the enemies of such experiences, they keep occupying us with trivial distractions.
We are on the edge of the Grand Canyon. They are beeping in our back pockets. We are gazing at the snowy gradients of Mount Everest. They are receiving updates about a B-list celebrity’s baby-daddy. They ask us never to forget our ego and the endless things that ail us. Without meaning to, they strip away the help that the grandeur of nature can offer us.
We constantly use our phones to keep track of our appointments, but we are, if we think about it, quite constrained by the things to which we choose to be alerted. There is the automated reminder of the session with the dentist, the alert to jog our memory that it’s our friends’ anniversary, or the text to let us know we have practice after school. But there are other, very different appointments that we must keep in mind.
We need reminders to keep appointments with ourselves. We need to spend time with our own worries rather than just suffer the anxiety they create. The grandest of appointments is our final one with death. We don’t know how many days we have left, but what we need reminding of is not the day or the hour, but the fact.
Ideally, we’d get a message every morning. “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” Remember you are made of dust and will be dust again. Our phones seem amazingly sophisticated, small miracles of compressed practical science working hand in hand with advanced capitalism. We think so highly of them because we compare them to the past, rather than to the possibilities of the future. They are so much more advanced than any device we could have possessed twenty to forty years ago, yet our phones are almost unbearably primitive in comparison with the technology the future will ‘hopefully’ bring. The ‘technology’ we so desperately need (a program to digest and determine which things are important) we already possess, in our minds and thoughts and feelings.
Technology has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of downtown, but not a diagram of what our friends are really thinking and feeling. The phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets, but not let us know when we have spent more than enough time doing so. It emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of the soul and a simple passing fancy. But why should it? Have we reached a point that we think it is better for a program to do this rather than our own moral or spiritual convictions? But perhaps we have reached an age where our moral and spiritual convictions are no longer as important as they used to be, and that is truly terrifying.