Device devotion: addiction? Or the Future?

Recently I read yet another newspaper story on parents worried about their kids’ addiction to screens. The twist in this particular story was about how parents are having a hard time maintaining credibility when they themselves spend on average nine hours a day online. Some of the families in the article arrive at a compromise: the parents limit the kids, but also allow the kids to correct the parents’ own addiction.

Well over three-fourths of Americans own a smart phone, only one of the screens in question, and while probably some of us use it non-abusively, it seems a very popular addiction. But is it accurate or useful to think of it as an addiction at all, in the sense of bad for us (like smoking) but susceptible with right strategies to correction?

It’s common to joke about friends or lovers walking along a street, each relating to her machine rather than to each other. Or arriving at a restaurant date and immediately whipping out their devices. The usual criticism is that smart phones make us “anti-social.” But your device is social, too, of course, having been created by fellow humans for socializing with other humans.

It would seem that the problem, if it is that, with smart phones is not that they are anti-social but that we are coming—have come, some of us—to prefer the society of our devices. And of course we know why: because they are more interesting, more fun, –and a lot smarter. In short, a more lively conversationalist than your lunch companion. Even, possibly, more intimate. (It ‘s even sort of physically intimate in a way we would only a few years ago never have expected of a relationship to a machine, what with all the pinching, flicking, fingering and caressing of our pocket companion.)

A friend or group of friends is a part of the world, but only a tiny part. The phone gives you the whole world, at your fingertips. The reality is that you can’t reasonably expect a mere person, even your spouse or best friend, to compete with online social media. All users know the incomparable tingle of being online and plugged into the world (and the letdown when for some reason we become unplugged) — the vitality of that. We have apparently begun to prefer that sort of connection, at least a lot of the time, to what is coming to seem the relatively drab companionship of our actual physical company.

All of which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t resist our devotion to screens. Obviously it’s shocking to acknowledge that we have begun to prefer our “phones” to fellow humans. It seems to change, perhaps even undermine, the whole meaning of life as we know it. But what we’re fighting is not anything so simple as dysfunctional addiction. What we’re fighting, the way things are going, is the future.

Letting Siri take care of the navigating when driving, surrendering to that extent our actual engagement with the physical world we are driving through, is not viewed as an addiction but progress. It prepares us for what’s coming next: giving over our driving life entirely to the self-driving car which will not only tell you how to get where you want to go but will take you there. Almost certainly our sense of direction and ability to use maps are already atrophying but nobody’s complaining.

How long before our devotion to our devices is no longer seen as an addiction, but only a reasonable preference. Progress. The future.

Articles about screen addiction are all written by people who are old enough to remember human relationships when there was no competition from digital devices. Youth under a certain age —like the kids in that article– though they might go along with the family plan to limit screen use, are probably just humoring the parents. They have no basis for being concerned about online socializing. They’re just into it. For them, the future is here.


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