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Column: Hello, Smartphone, So Long, Smarts

The Fresno Bee illustration

The Fresno Bee illustration

It’s time for you to take step No. 1 and acknowledge that there is a problem that you are powerless to resolve — that the moment you and your date finish ordering dinner you pull out your smartphones and start texting so you don’t have to face the possibility of silence; that you have come to believe that you more-or-less actually have read War and Peace because you read the plot summary on Wikipedia; that you find out what your kid is up to not by talking to her but by monitoring her Facebook page; that at work you simply cannot go more than 10 minutes without surreptitiously checking email no matter how much else you have to do — and that if there are no new messages you feel like a total loser; that you’re always taking pictures of yourself with your friends so you can check on how good you look; that you cheat on the crossword puzzle; that even though you’re married you are always assessing your market value on match.com — which is not cheating, right?

But think of the upsides. You can never get lost anymore, you always know how to pack for wherever it is you’re going. You deal with fewer mediocre meals, fewer hotels with lousy service. There are no ticket lines for the movie, no need for pick-up lines at bars or excruciating intro Q&As at parties, no risk of boredom as you play Temple Run or check stock prices between subway stops. Gone is the frustration of not being able to identify the song you’re hearing, or the inadequacy of not knowing the meaning of the acronym that the know-it-all in the next office used at yesterday’s staff meeting. Instant expertise on every subject, and all the data you could imagine to back up your own personal convictions about the evils of gluten, delivered to your brain in predigested paragraphs. Camera at the ready for every photo op, voice recorder for whatever idea pops into your head and out of your mouth. So what if your attention span has been fragmented into nanoseconds, if you measure your social life by Facebook friends, your professional worth by Google hits, and the worst words you can imagine are “airplane mode”?

We are all one-marshmallow OCD narcissists, granted by our devices the magic of comprehensive instant gratification, of self-reinforcing world views, of control over the daily minutia of our fates and fortunes. To not be irrevocably addicted to our smartphones would be senseless.

That being said, why is it that the essence of our app-mediated existence seems so eerily reminiscent of some of our most famous and enduring visions of dystopia?

In Brave New World, for example, Aldous Huxley invents a society where material consumption, genetically tailored education, good pharmaceuticals and recreational sex keep everyone happy and in line. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, people are continuously entertained via wall-sized television screens, while books, over time, have become progressively condensed and finally, by popular demand, are burned lest their ideas offend someone. Both novels — and here we can add 1984 to the list — portray the intentional simplification of complex and ambiguous ideas — dumbing down, in our own dumbed-down parlance — communicated relentlessly through advanced technologies, as central to how societies anesthetize themselves, achieve material satisfaction and come to be passively dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Of course in our real world the regime is the marketplace, working its inexorable logic through the miracle of technological innovation and the opiate of individualized consumption. It’s barely a metaphor, really — who needs Huxley’s soma when giving everyone what they want is the ultimate drug. And there is no authoritarian big brother to blame, we do this, we tell ourselves, voluntarily and exuberantly through the pursuit of novelty, convenience, entertainment and approval. We are expressing ourselves. What our dystopian master storytellers did not foresee is that the threat from technology is not a universal and deadening conformity, but quite the opposite, a universal and deadening individuality.

But of course ultimately we find out what our collective identity amounts to. The hundreds of millions of individualized data-generating nodes each known to itself as “me” matter mostly to the logic of our world because they add up to what is quaintly known as “big data,” among whose chief beneficiaries are the companies that use the data to personalize their marketing in a virtuous feedback loop that makes them more money and makes you want to keep on keeping up. And then there is the security state that is increasingly able to isolate, identify and anticipate aberrant behavioral patterns among potential undesirables, turning you into a predictable particle, but at least you are a safe particle. Old-fashioned civil libertarians and social conservatives may cavil about privacy and agency and responsibility and other abstractions, but screw them, the market is free, and information is free, and we are each made free through well-informed consumer choice. And so our personalized technologies, delivered through the marketplace, reinforce and gratify an obsession with the individual, where we all get to live in our own caul of information and stimulation and positive reinforcement, our own little narcissphere.

Nothing can be worse for civil society than a culture where everyone feels they can get whatever they want, whenever they want it. From the one-percenters and the disappearance of social mobility, to the continued dissolution of political civility and the political gridlock over pretty much every important issue presenting itself today, we are seeing an erosion of the overarching social cohesion that makes it possible for democracies to function. If our smartphones aren’t the cause of that, they are certainly resonant co-conspirators, as they compel our continual devoted attention, at once isolating us from one another, while stripping our cognitive landscapes of an appreciation of the necessity and yes, even the virtue, of ambiguity, unpredictability, risk, conflict and compromise.

Daniel Sarewitz co-directs the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He also writes a monthly column on science and technology policy for Nature.