Will Smarter Phones Mean Dumber People?
by Randall Amster
The road ahead was clearly marked as “closed” and a “dead end,” but the voice from the back seat insisted that we go forward anyway. “My phone says go straight ahead,” counseled the voice, ignoring the driver’s observation that the street was apparently closed. “The GPS in my phone is smarter than you are,” chimed the voice, good-naturedly yet sardonically. Obviously trumped, the driver continued forward — until we inevitably reached the advertised road closure that forced us to turn around and start over.
In itself, such a minor folly is entirely inconsequential and worthy of a little chuckle at best. Yet it’s also indicative of an increasingly prevalent attitude whereby the reliance on “smart” technologies is steadily supplanting human assessments and instincts. By now, such an observation is quite nearly passé, in that we have already given so much of ourselves and our reasoning capacities over to machines in one form or another. But the advent and rapid permeation of personal technologies like so-called “smartphones” raises further concerns that have been less explored during this most recent consumer frenzy.
Earlier this year, it was reported that over half of U.S. phone users have smartphones, with the rate rising to nearly two-thirds in the 25-34 age range. CNN observed that this represented a 38 percent increase from the previous year. The data are revealing if not superfluous, as even a casual observer will confirm that people are increasingly using these devices everywhere. And it is truly a burgeoning global phenomenon, with nearly as many cell phones as people on the planet, and with smartphones now numbering over a billion and rising.
New technologies often bring rapid changes in cultural norms as well as concerns over their usage. Yet in the case of smartphones, we seem to hear less of the concerns being voiced than we might expect, especially given how much they have contributed to remaking the social landscape in so short a time. Privacy issues have been raised in some quarters, including a Wall Street Journal article titled “Your Apps Are Watching You,” and the tracking and surveillance capacities enabled by these devices have been duly noted. The data compiled from smartphones is routinely mined by commercial entities, law enforcement agencies, and who knows who else — and it is quite likely the case that most users are fully aware of this by now.
Still, by and large, users seem blissfully unconcerned, which is problematic in its own right as a form of cognitive dissonance. And the proto-sociologist in me sees other troubling signs. You walk into any space, public or private, and the majority of people have their heads down looking at their digital devices. You sit on a park bench while your kids are at the playground, and most of the parents are on their smartphones rather than talking to one another. You give a talk or presentation, and people in the room regularly stare down to check their messages and such. You ask a friend a question, and they need you to repeat it multiple times…
This is the zeitgeist, the (ring)tone of the times. But who am I to stand in the way of progress? (Or even regress, for that matter.) People are drawn to new toys; I get it. Yet it’s disturbing to see some basic human qualities on the verge of being bred out if this arc continues. Is it too much to ask that community members engage with one another rather than obsessing over their handheld devices? Maybe we can open our windows to check the weather rather than pulling it up on our phones. Perhaps (as the example at the top of this piece suggests) we can use our instincts and observations to find our way rather than relying on digital directives all the time. Can we talk rather than text? Or even just look up (and around) now and again?
The problem lies in crossing that fine line between a tool that enables and a technology that ensnares. When we become utterly dependent on such technologies, not merely for sustenance but for psychological validation, they begin to rule rather than liberate us. We wind up voluntarily feeding the security apparatus everything it needs to turn us into controlled data points instead of autonomous human beings, making us the agents of our own oppression. Over time, we lose the capacity to think for ourselves or communicate with others without these devices. Consider that the “smart” electrical meter on your house likely knows more about who you really are than your friends or neighbors do. We are never offline, off the clock, or off the grid — and our functional distraction is meant to mask our profound alienation. Solipsism is our final refuge.
Such cautionary tales are well known in the annals of speculative fiction. Whether it’s The Terminator, Blade Runner, or Battlestar Galactica, the overarching theme remains the same. When machines get “smart,” they come to identify us venal humans as the problem, and seek to annihilate us for our own good. In our infinite wisdom we create machines to serve our purposes and even desires, but when they “wake up” and take that injunction literally it all goes awry quickly. Things come home to roost when we recognize a kernel of truth in the machines’ obsession with eliminating humankind for its hubris, destructiveness, and foolhardiness. In the end, we’re left with a self-fulfilling apocalypse in which smart machines seek to supersede stupid people.
I gather that it may not be high on anyone’s list to read a rant about the evils of technology. As I’ve noted many times before, that’s not where I’m coming from: we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, and the things that humans create can be beautiful and empowering at times. What I am urging here is a balance, not a rejection. Turn your smartphone off now and again, leave it at home, or ditch it altogether in favor of an old-school landline. Place limits on when you’ll be available for people to reach you electronically. When in a public place, chat with nearby people rather than remote avatars. Don’t text while someone is talking to you. Read, don’t tweet. Go outside and watch real birds rather than playing with angry ones on your touchscreen.
I know, I know — I’m a dinosaur, retro, so 15 minutes ago. But I’m still going to navigate by my senses rather than whatever your smartphone is telling me to do. Sorry, but I haven’t seen an app for common sense yet, and I doubt that one is forthcoming. Despite the trend, I maintain that people are still more capable than their phones, but how long that will last is anyone’s guess at this point. The road ahead on our present course is clearly marked “dead end,” and it doesn’t take a billion smartphones to realize it — only a few smart people.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is the Graduate Chair of Humanities at Prescott College. He serves as Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is the publisher and editor of New Clear Vision. Among his recent books are Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012) and Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly, 2008).