Looking into a smartphone can feel like falling into another dimension. Click. Swipe. Skim. Like.
When we still used dial-up, the internet may have been merely a place we visited, but now it is a new layer on our entire lives.
Smartphones aren’t bad. Our two thumbs can find information, create connection, do business, and access an endless variety of entertainment options from anywhere in the world. By and large, greater access to information and connection is a fantastic thing—literally the stuff of fantasy.
But new technologies have always inspired predictions of dread and doom: the complaint by Socrates’ Thamus, who declared writing to be “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder . . . not true wisdom . . . but only its semblance . . . not wisdom, but the conceit of wisdom.”
Or those, commenting on the lower quality of mass-produced material in circulation after the invention of the printing press, who wondered if “more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.” But these examples from the past aren’t enough to dismiss everyone who urges caution or reflection on our use of smartphones.
Even if the naysayers’ overall pessimism seems silly to us now, we have to admit that they were pointing out real negative effects of the technologies they lambasted: effects we might do well to consider even today.
Take one experience that’s familiar to most smartphone users: you navigate to Facebook or Instagram out of boredom, or even out of a real desire to connect with someone specific. Half an hour later, you realize you’re feeling frustrated, envious, and deeply dissatisfied with yourself. What just happened? you ask. You might even scroll back through some of the engagement announcements and vacation photos to look for a single culprit, but quickly realize you’ve just fallen into a general sense of FOMO.
You resolve to be happy for your friends instead of envying them—and to take more photos on your next adventure. But your resolutions are unlikely to solve your problem if you don’t see how the problem extends beyond yourself.
Sure, you might be happier if your life were more exciting and photo-worthy (you have, after all, just spent thirty minutes dumbly staring at a screen alone), or if you tried harder to appreciate your friends’ happiness—but what about the technology itself?
Our devices give us access to far more information and far wider networks of people than we are actually capable of dealing with. We think we’d like to be out in the world doing what our friends are doing, but with this torrent of data streaming through our hands, we get the sense that we’re missing out when we’re not on our phones too.
Then there are the social networks, engineered, re-engineered, tweaked, and calibrated to stimulate pleasure centers in our brains while gathering information on our needs, habits, hopes, and fears. They deliver an isolated experience of a world algorithmically tailored to our own shallowest desires.
We only occasionally realize, we’re mostly just using our friends, acquaintances, family, and exes for entertainment. No wonder we’re not satisfied.
At the same time, though, we consent to be used in the same way every time we post. At best, we use our broadcasting powers to make announcements, invite good conversation, or brighten someone’s day, but again, that’s not exactly what our apps are designed for. Their algorithms give priority to posts that garner reactions of any kind, while delivering powerful shots of cortisol in the form of the likes and comments that accrue to the poster.
Whether we aspire to be Instagram celebrities or just enjoy the rush, more of us than would admit to it have planned an event or outfit around the like-potential of the photos. In doing so, we tread a fine line between serving our friends and titillating an audience, between using a medium for creativity and turning ourselves into commodities for consumption.
 Socrates, cited in Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 54.
 Cited in Carr, The Shallows.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.