The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

10 Reasons We Love/Hate Our Smartphones

Why do we have such a love/hate relationship with our smartphones? Why do we take them everywhere and talk about how irritating they are? Why does it feel risky or rebellious to leave them behind anytime we leave the house—even for a walk? On an airplane, why do we wait until the last possible moment before turning them off during take-offs? And why does it feel so good when we realize that, for a whole hour or two, we were so engrossed in a book or a conversation or a game or a movie that we forgot about them altogether?

I’ve talked with more than a few friends who have expressed feelings like this. One friend speculated, “When my contract is up, I might not get another iPhone.” Another said, “After my iPhone broke, I had to use a flip phone for a while.” When I asked her how she was coping, she told me, “I’ve felt so much more centered. I’m not constantly checking it.” But her Zen-like peacefulness didn’t last long: She got a new iPhone a few weeks later.

I’ve experienced all these contradictions myself, and I wanted to understand them better. So I sat down and I made a list.

When I was done, I looked over the list and realized that what came up were not thoughts or principles, but feelings. Basic, visceral feelings. For a stupid phone, a recent technological development. And most of these feelings alternate between fear and worry. Here’s what I came up with. See if you can relate.

We Feel . . .

10. Desired/Disappointed

“I love getting new messages and feeling the love, but I check my phone so often that I’m more often disappointed than not. We’re constantly checking our phones for new notifications. Because we get texts, emails, Facebook messages, tweets, and calls all on our phones, each new notification makes us feel like we matter. We love this. But if there’s nothing new, we have this pinprick of regret. Since 2010, we’ve gone from checking our phones every 10 minutes to checking them every 6. That’s a lot more pinpricks.

9. Accessible/Obligated

“I feel good knowing my friends are within reach, but sometimes they text me and I don’t want to text back right away. Am I a jerk? Texting is perhaps the most complicated communication medium we have. Sometimes the responses are immediate; other times, they can take days to respond. But we never quite know the reason for one versus the other. The expectations around it are a minefield of miscommunication and frustration.

8. In the know/Out of touch

“I want to get the facts, but often it kills the conversation. For me, the best conversations involve different points of view and wondering aloud. When a disagreement arises though, Google or Wikipedia promise to resolve it. However, the minute the phone comes out, the conversation dies—either by distracting one of us, or by letting facts have the final word.

7. Aware/Distracted

“I like getting alerts, but I feel needlessly interrupted a lot. By default, a lot of apps alert you to all kinds of minutiae. When your phone keeps buzzing or beeping while you’re talking to someone, the distractions can be hard to ignore. The “what ifs” of each alert are often too juicy to resist. And we hate it.

6. Entertained/Extracted

“I like pleasant diversions when I have a little down time, but I usually end up spending more time than I intended, and I feel disoriented when I come back. Standing in line at the grocery or riding home on the subway, like an astronaut upon re-entry, we return from our phones and have to re-acclimate to life with gravity. We are deer-in-the-headlights on sea legs, re-acquainting ourselves with the world we’d suspended—that changed while we were gone.

5. Efficient/Exhausted

“I like have everything in one place, but I hate navigating all these different apps. Our phones have consolidated so many loose ends—directions, to-do lists, coupons, taking selfies. That’s great. But somehow those loose ends aren’t neatly tied up—they’re just all together in one place. It’s like having on one key ring all the keys from your old apartments, cars, jobs, and lockers—as well as your current ones: If you ever need them, you won’t have to go far, but you still have to rummage through all of them for the two you still use.

4. Together/Alone

“I keep expecting to feel more connected to my friends and family through my phone, but I still feel isolated a lot of the time. Long before cell phones, long-distance communication made living far away acceptable. Now, the people I’m closest to emotionally, live far away geographically—an hour or more. But when I’m feeling stressed or sad or crazy, a phone call is like a band-aid without adhesive. When it really counts, they still feel far away.

3. Safe/Dependent

“I feel safer having a cell phone close by, but I resent having to carry it with me all the time. If everyone has a cell phone, then everyone has someone they can call. This assumption, true or not, means that we’re less likely to stop to help a stranger. Because of that, we’re afraid of not having help when we need it, so we become more dependent on our phones. The cycle perpetuates itself.

2. Informed/Distracted

“My all-in-one smartphone often turns into an all-instead-of-one smartphone. I check my phone for one reason and get sucked into checking all the others.

1. Free/On Probation

“I like being available without having to stay in one place, but now I have to be available everywhere I go.” Our phones are kind of like parole officers: We’re free to roam, but we have to keep checking in. There’s a measure of freedom, but also a measure of submission. It’s freedom with a leash.

The Cost/Benefit
This list also made me realize that we pay the costs more frequently than we reap the benefits. And whereas the benefits are typically practical benefits—like getting directions somewhere—the costs are typically emotional—like feeling disappointed when you don’t get a text back.

In other words, the benefits and costs are asymmetrical. Newton’s 3rd Law doesn’t apply: There is no equal and opposite reaction. Instead, the scenario is more like a variation of the so-called “butterfly effect.” So is there a way to balance this out more? Is there a way to keep more of the benefits and incur less of the costs?

Many of the costs listed can be avoided if you put the phone in its place. Show it who’s boss. How?

Take your phone out of your pocket, and put it out of arm’s reach.

We can usually reap a phone’s benefits even when it’s out of reach. When you’re at work, or school, or out with friends, leave it in your jacket, your book bag, or your purse. At home, put it on its charger in another room. If the idea of doing this stresses you out, then at least turn the phone face down, no sound, no buzzer. Do the same in the car. You’ll be surprised how soon you forget about it. If these suggestions make your palms sweaty, then you should ask yourself why.

*   *   *
We used to have this saying, “I’ll be waiting by the phone,” meaning that we would wait expectantly. And sometimes we reversed it, “I won’t be waiting by the phone.” We’d be moving on in heart and mind. I’m not waiting around.

Today, both phrases are meaningless. Today, we do both and neither at the same time. Everywhere we go, we go about “waiting by the phone.” We go about hoping that someone will call or text or email. We hope our phone will ring or ding, chime or vibrate. We no longer linger by the phone or wait with anticipation. But we also don’t give up and move on. Our phones simply go with us. And so does the waiting. We move on, tethered to expectation. We wait while we’re on the go. We are in suspended animation, or animated suspension. Like a film strip, we are a series of still-life images, passing from frame to frame.

Which numbers do you especially resonate with? Are there others you would add? Do you disagree with any of them? If so, leave a comment, send me a tweet @AdamGraber, or comment on Facebook.

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