The Case Against Smartphones

Smartphones are ubiquitous—but for political, social, and philosophical reasons, not everyone is swiping.

"We’re the last generation of people who knew what life was like before smartphones."

I’m using my smartphone to video chat with James and Jennie Sheehan, a Brooklyn couple in their mid-forties who have never owned a mobile phone.

"Our friends are fearful for us," James continues. "They ask things like, 'How do you survive without a cell phone? How can you have a baby? How would you get to the hospital without a cell phone?'' As the Sheehans relate this story, Imogen, their 7-year-old daughter, comes into view, suspiciously eying me on her parent's computer screen. So it seems that, despite their friends' concerns, childbirth is still possible without a cell phone.

But just barely: On a field trip last year, one of Imogen's friends asked Jennie point blank how she could be a mom without a cell phone. Even the kindergarteners are concerned.

The Sheehan family

In America today, where 90% of adults own cell phones and 58% own smartphones, choosing not to own a mobile device is a minor act of protest. For the Sheehans, rejecting smartphone culture was a deliberate and serious decision: "We’re taking a stance and even though we know it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference to the world, it makes a difference in our lives," Jennie says. But they're not alone. Smartphone backlash has recently begun to surface—comedian Louis C.K. and director James Cameron have both spoken up about why they think smartphones are bad for society. James and Jennie have more kindred spirits than they think.

Growing up in San Jose, the Sheehans had front row seats to the spectacle of Silicon Valley’s rise. Just three years apart, they first met when James was Jennie’s crossing guard in elementary school, back when older kids would help the younger ones cross the street; they started dating as Berkeley college students a decade later. "It was sublime, growing up," James tells me, recalling their childhood in the Bay Area. "It was all rolling hills and creeks and beaches. Then technology arrived and McMansions started popping up everywhere."

Since so many of their parents’ friends were engineers and computer scientists, they were surrounded by tech gizmos growing up: They were among the first to get laptops and PalmPilots. "Our parents were pretty fanatical about technology because they thought it was going to create a utopia," Jennie says. "But when we came of age, we thought, this isn’t utopia—this is 1984." They moved to Brooklyn to escape this obsession with gadgets, but electronic devices are everywhere, none more ubiquitous than the smartphone.

Peering into my iPhone’s tiny screen, I somewhat self-consciously ask the Sheehans what it is about smartphones that offends them so. "Smartphones have become an extension of people's bodies," James explains. "People are no longer participating in the world around them; it is that bodily disconnect from their surroundings that we are so vehement about." From what he can tell, most New Yorkers are completely glued to their phones on buses, at restaurants, walking down the street, in their cars.

For some, the idea that the phone is an extension of our bodies is thrilling. In the New Yorker, Tim Wu says the smartphone can be seen as the next step in the project to augment the human brain. By attaching ourselves to web-enabled devices, we boost our intelligence with encyclopedic knowledge and infinite memory: we’ll never again forget the name of an actor or the French word for spinach or how to find our way home.

But others see this quest for unlimited understanding as a Faustian bargain. They are concerned that people are no longer in control of their technology but, instead, these devices shape the way that people live, spend their time, and decide what they like. Jennie supports this view. "You feel like you have choices from your apps, but you’re really being programmed for those choices," she says. "The algorithm decides what you like; you don’t have the time or the contemplative space to ask if this is what you are interested in."

The economy is increasingly being built around smartphones. To use car services like Uber or dating apps like Tinder, you must have an iOS or Android app. New York plans to replace pay phone booths with Wi-Fi hotspots, making it harder for people without mobile phones to make calls on the fly. And yet, phones and data plans can be expensive. James is an artist and Jennie is a legal assistant, so they tell me that bearing a smartphone bill would be a financial burden. "Not everybody can afford a smartphone but it is getting harder to participate in the economy without one," Jennie says. "Some people are going into debt to get a smartphone and that is just crazy."

While the Sheehans have political objections to smartphones, others around the country have actively resisted the lure of the device for personal reasons. I sat down with Ariel White, 27, a political science graduate student at Harvard, who sometimes feels she is the only person on campus without a smartphone. She hopes to keep it that way: As she pulls her simple flip phone out of her pocket, she tells me that she just purchased this model hoping it will last another decade because she is worried that smartphones might soon be the only option on the market.

Ariel White prefers a flip phone.

"I thought that getting a smartphone would make me less happy," she tells me. As a graduate student, she says she already spends a lot of time on the Internet and email. Not having a smartphone allows her to disengage from the web and dig deeper into hobbies like gardening, knitting, and reading. "My goal is to be a person with a long attention span but I feel like I am losing that ability; I worry about going farther down that path."

Marguerite Summer, 27, a psychologist-in-training, never wanted a smartphone. But she just started a job that involves a daily three-hour-long commute and her fiance suggested that a smartphone would allow her to whittle down her inbox on the bus. When I speak to her, she has only had her phone for a week and isn’t sure she likes it. The phone allows her to be more productive, which she finds both a blessing and a curse. "Since I have it, I feel like I should be maximizing my use of it," she says. "I like being aware of what is going on around me, but it no longer feels okay to sit and people-watch when I have downtime."

For those of us who have been smartphone users for some time, it can be difficult to remember our mental and emotional responses to our surroundings before we had the device, but Marguerite is acutely aware of how her behavior is changing. For instance, it is getting easier to avoid making eye contact with strangers on the train or asking for directions when she is lost. "There is a certain amount of psychological anxiety involved with any social interaction and we can avoid that feeling by retreating into our device," she says. There is some evidence to suggest that smartphone users are so distracted they are unlikely to notice when those around them are in distress and when they do, their first impulse might be to film the event than to help.

It is still unclear exactly how the smartphone will evolve: Some suggest that it will become a personal assistant that requires very little human input—along the lines of the movie Her—while others think that it will become wearable, a la Google Glass. While more people are sharing their reservations about smartphone culture than ever, many think that resistance is futile. "It’s spitting in the wind," says Jennie.

[Image: Flickr user Jon Fingas]

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5 Comments

  • kara_hammond

    "You feel like you have choices from your apps, but you’re really being programmed for those choices," she says. "The algorithm decides what you like; you don’t have the time or the contemplative space to ask if this is what you are interested in."

    That's it in a nutshell. If you spend hours a day on your media device, how do you know if what you think is really your own idea?

  • Corinna Resberg

    It's ridiculous how it's always portrayed as a situation where you have to pick between technology and real life. I own a smartphone; I also enjoy gardening. I notice things around me. I communicate. I'm not "owned" by apps, and algorithms don't choose what I like. What a stupid notion.

  • Blaming any thing for your behavior is misguided. You choose to look at your phone, choose to answer its ring, choose to snap a pic instead of gaze at a sunset. The phone holds not influence over you that your don't grant it.

  • kara_hammond

    It becomes a reflexive behavior after a while. You may think you have control over it, but how often do you not answer the Pavlovian bell?