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Smart Phones: The Helper Turned Tyrant

June 2, 2015
St Pancras Sculpture

Detail from Paul Day’s Meeting Place sculpture at St Pancras Station, London

The other morning, I set out from home on my way to the golf course. After about a mile I made a discovery that would have caused 90% of the adult population of the UK turn back. I’d forgotten to bring my mobile phone.

I considered going back home for about five seconds, and then continued on my way. If the world can’t do without my being available for five hours, then to hell with the world, I thought.

Later that day we had our two daughters home to celebrate a birthday. One of them was unable to spend more than five minutes in conversation without anxiously glancing at her phone. She spent a good 50% of her visit browsing, texting and making calls.

Barely a day goes by without someone – usually a psychologist or some other type of health “expert” whose opinions hold sway for about ten minutes before they’re discredited by the latest thinking – droning on about the dangers of smart phones. How people are expected to be on-line and available 24/7/365. How work-life balance for billions of people has shifted in favour of work.

Once upon a time the worry was that mobile phones gave you brain tumours. These days, it seems, they make your head explode. They turn you into obsessive checkers of status. They destroy your ability to concentrate on one thing at a time. The little electronic node becomes the centre of your life, not the people around you, not the air you breathe, not the ground you stand on.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. For a lover to text you. For deal to be done. For a plane to land or a taxi to show up. For good news, for bad news. For any bloody news.

Is this good or bad? Neither. It just is.

I’m lucky. I do a job in which I get to ask people to switch off their phones, or at least to leave them silent. If I see them browsing or texting I can embarrass them by asking them a question, or transfix them with the death stare.

For hours every day I’m unavailable to anyone but the people I’m working with. I don’t carry my phone from room to room. Horror of horrors, I don’t use it for email. Nothing, but nothing, can’t wait a few hours for my attention. And if something’s really urgent, what’s wrong with a text?

Am I a dinosaur? Well, I might look like one of those pot-bellied sauropods these days, but I do know how to use a smart phone. I just don’t choose to very much, because I prefer to be the master of my own time rather than the slave of everybody else’s.

Perhaps that sounds sanctimonious. But I don’t feel superior to phone addicts because I have my own addictions to deal with. I do however feel sorry for people who can’t live without their electronic heartbeat, just as I feel sorry for alcoholics and cokeheads whose atrophied livers and arteries are slowly leading them to an early grave.

The sad thing is that while there’s plenty of help available for people who drink too much or shove industrial quantities of white powder up their noses, phone addiction isn’t even recognised as a problem in most circles. On the contrary, it’s seen as a badge of honour. A person married to their work. Drunk on success. Wired, connected, all-seeing. A person of (electronic) action.

But if I were such a person I would worry that should the reason for all that manic activity disappear, a great hole would take its place from which I might never emerge. Silence and inertia instead of all the sound and fury signifying nothing. The same kind of silence that afflicts all those members of the British parliament ejected by the voters last month. The silence of loss and loneliness rather than contemplation.

It’s said that when you die, the last thing to fade away is your hearing. Since the coming of the smart phone you could argue that your last trace of life ends when the battery runs out.

Just something to think about when you sit with your family lost in your smart world, or you curl up in bed with your electronic best friend. You may not see it this way, but in my little bubble, nothing is more important than the world you see, feel, hear, taste and touch. There is no other reality, even if Apple, Samsung and Facebook would like to convince you otherwise.

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