Obviously your phone is not cancer. But It’s kind of starting to seem that way based on how people talk about the alleged affects of “screen time” and other buzzwordy pseudo afflictions. Whether it’s shortening attention spans, killing democracy, or literal devil horns, smart phones—and tech more generally—seem to be taking a lot of blame these days (the fact that AARP is the group pushing the “shortening attention spans” narrative is almost too good to be true). The level of concern, though, seems to be getting overwrought to me.
Obviously we should be concerned about the ways new technologies affect us but the current level of concern in some corners is bordering on conspiratorial. For example, I have heard a lot of people talking recently about how tech companies are “using psychology” to “make people addicted” to their products. Does anyone really believe that auto-play video or endlessly scrolling timelines are what make people read Twitter? If so, why don’t more people read the dictionary?
No amount of psychological trickery can make people do things they don’t want to do. If there is a problem here it’s on the demand side, not the supply side.
There have always been those who think new technologies are the end of the world (sometimes literally). When books were becoming common, many people were concerned that it would lessen people’s memory. Maybe they did, but would you trade libraries for a longer memory? I’m not convinced that trade would be worth it.
Revolutionary new technologies in communication have often been attended by social upheaval. The printing press enabled the mass production of the tracts that split the Catholic Church (which was far more disruptive than this week’s Twitter controversy). But who today would wish that Big Print™ had been broken up in 1516?
As with everything else, there are trade-offs with technology. Would you trade access to virtually all of the world’s knowledge or the ability to connect with friends and family half a world away for marginally better social skills or a slightly longer attention span? I wouldn’t.
And really, if so many people were as cripplingly addicted to their phones as the popular narrative would have you believe, don’t you think you would know more of them? We’ve all heard this story: “I was in a restaurant the other day and all these families were just looking down at their phones…” Why is it that the stories are always about other tables and not our own?
To be clear, I am not Pollyannaish about technology. I believe there are things about new technologies that we should be concerned by. For example, I think the way in which many tech companies are in the business of selling ads against our personal data without compensation raises some very serious property rights issues. But I think we go too far in treating technology–whether smart phones or social media–as though they are broadly responsible for whatever ill society has been diagnosed with this week.
Ultimately, I just think we should be a little more circumspect about the malicious role technology plays in the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.