The dark truth is that it’s become very hard to find anyone (and certainly anything) more interesting than one’s smartphone. This perplexing and troubling realization has for most of us had huge consequences for our love stories, family lives, work, leisure time and health.This is a text that aims to bring a little sanity to our closest, most intense and possibly most danger-laden technological relationship.
To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own 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 to the extent that we recruit them to a harmful project of self-avoidance.
2. Our phones and our relationships
In principle, we love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable. Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people.
It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their theory of ideal fridge management. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with information about the most expensive apartment currently on sale in Manhattan or the diet of Mymains Stewart Gilligan (the largest pet cat in the world).
We can, it seems, hook up so easily. There are millions of people out there. It shouldn’t be hard to find the right one – if only we sign up to the right site. We become monsters of our hopes: any person we have met is judged against those we haven’t ever met. Of course, none of the people we do meet through our phones is in fact ever quite right. So we go back to the search and redouble our efforts.
The task of love can’t be to locate some mythical ‘right person’. Compatibility is an achievement of love, it can’t be its precondition. This is a truth that our phone, as yet, doesn’t want to teach us. It promises to locate someone who likes eating cheese, wants to wear a rubber mask and lives within a ten mile radius of Sevenoaks. But it cannot, as yet, help us with the real challenge of love: which is to extend sympathy and understanding to human frailty.
Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realize we are forgetting:
- The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
- Moss on an old stone wall
- The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
- The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
- A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
- The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
- How nice it is to read in the bath
They are all waiting for a little attention.
“Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to.”
5. Fear Of Missing Out
Thanks to our phone we’re more exposed than ever to the alluring things others do: ‘there was this great bar we all went to …’; ‘she’s getting married in a little country church…’; the top after-party … amazing views … chic Brooklyn bar that locals love…’ There is so much we’re not doing, not invited to, not part of. Our own lives, it naturally seems, are filled with the Fear Of Missing Out. It’s tempting to get a bit cynical. Maybe the hyped things are not all they’re cracked up to be? It’s more nuanced than this: we do indeed risk missing out.
But there is a rather different list of things we might not get round to enjoying than the one our phones want us to focus on: getting to truly know our parents, learning to cope well with being alone; appreciating the consoling power of trees and clouds; chatting to a seven year old child… It’s not the notion of missing out that is the problem. It’s our ideas of what we might be missing out on that counts – and that our phones unhelpfully skew.
6. The Dream of being ‘liked’
It can feel desperately naive or narcissistic to admit it – but we really like being ‘liked.’ Our momentary excitement when we get a message isn’t shameful or ridiculous. It’s a widely shared, yet secret, pang of hope: that our troubles and joys will be truly understood by another; and that all the messages we wish to send to the world would be received and perfectly understood, at least by someone. We should not be frightened or discomfited by our pervasive loneliness. It isn’t our fault: a degree of distance and mutual incomprehension isn’t a sign that life has gone wrong. It’s what we should expect from the very start. In any case, loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate. Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.
“Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.”
The problem with selfies is not that we take them, but that we don’t take them seriously enough. We tend to feel the need to be a touch ironic: ‘Here I am eating a sausage!’ ‘Look at me with this cute hat!’ Yet selfies are not inherently silly or self-regarding. They sit in one of the grand traditions of high art: the self-portrait. Although he was hampered by having to use oil paint and brushes, Rembrandt was addicted to making images of himself (more than one hundred across his long career). But he never showed himself winking or making funny hand gestures. Instead he was looking closely at who he was and what he had become: contemplating the sadness that gradually accumulated in his own face, trying to work out what he really made of being alive: what has life done to me? What have I done with my time on earth? He wasn’t seeking the approval of others, he was seeking self-knowledge. When something (like taking selfies) seems a little trivial or silly, it’s tempting to think we should take it less seriously; we should distance ourselves from it and see it in a mocking light. But the wiser move might be to get much more ambitious. The art of a selfie may have a long way to go yet.
We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish. We deserve pity for having been born in such primitive times.
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