Our phones are pulling us away from the moments we’re supposed to be living. A Twitter notification might distract us from a spouse at dinner. A perfect Instagram opportunity might filter an otherwise amazing moment through a four-inch screen of pixels. And in turn, the theme of unplugging has become all the rage.
Over at Wired, Mat Honan (a talented writer with so many mutual friends it's awkward) delivered an asinine, techno-apologist plea on behalf of gadget manufacturers and telecommunications companies everywhere. You know, the little guy. He argued that when we find ourselves unable to unplug (which our social media editors would no doubt, ironically like me to remind you is #unplug, should you want to tweet about it), it’s our fault rather than technology’s fault. Now he's being deliberately provocative, but I feel compelled to respond nonetheless because he's offering a willfully naive solution to a real social anxiety. Here’s his kicker:
The phone isn’t the problem. The problem is us—our inability to step away from email and games and inessential data, our inability to look up, be it at an alpine lake or at family members. We won’t be able to get away from it all for very much longer. So it’s vitally important that each of us learns how to live with a persistent connection, everywhere we go, whether it’s in the wilderness or at a dinner party.
In other words, he says it’s on you that you can’t put Candy Crush Saga down long enough to watch a proper sunset. And while that point may be true for the strongest-willed among us, it completely sidesteps the fact that our digital experiences have been designed like a metal and glass opiate drip.
Smartphones represent the most socially acceptable addiction on the planet, and that's not a word I'm tossing around lightly. In 2012, Baylor and Seton Hall University researchers published a study (PDF) in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions that concluded "materialism and impulsiveness drive both a dependence on cell phones and instant messaging," and yes, they went so far as to call our usage an "addiction." It's not a solitary conclusion. A researcher from Nottingham Trent University is beyond arguing whether we're facing technological addiction, and goes so far as to claim terms like "Facebook addiction" (or phone addiction, for that matter) may already be obsolete because they encapsulate too many discrete, addictive opportunities within each platform (messaging, gambling, etc).
Stop looking at phones as mere technological advancement for a moment, and see them for what they are: A $100 billion-plus industry, backed by an additional hundreds of billions of dollars in liquid war chests, driven by the most talented engineers and designers the world has to offer, all to ensure that through a combination of blinking, beeping, animation, and that elusive promise of "connectivity," you can’t possibly tap, pinch, or text just once. Because as soon as you might show some substantial level of restraint, a whole infrastructure of engagement-based monetization falls through the floor.
Claiming that it’s our fault when we can’t disconnect is like saying it’s our fault that we can’t eat just one Lay’s potato chip, smoke just one cigarette, take just one hit of heroin, or have just one orgasm. Addictions are irresistible by nature—by our core physiology, psychology, and everything else that makes us fleshy, fallible humans. And since when do we, as reasonable members of society, blame the addict who’s been hooked on a substance engineered by a giant, publicly traded corporation? Maybe it’s time we look beyond branding and become a bit more honest about what the iPhone has become: An enticingly useful, often unsatisfying, instinctually craveable drug. At the very least, maybe it's time we all stop blaming the victim.
Honan offers a handy solution to all of us who’d like to unplug—abstinence: "... resist the urge to open the email app." Now in case that tip fails my fellow addicts, there’s more: "If you can’t manage that, delete or turn off the account. Don’t worry, it’ll come back."
Fair enough. But you can almost imagine the same words coming straight from the lips of Philip Morris. "Don’t fret if you can’t smoke on the plane. The whole toasty pack will be waiting when you land!"