Alan Turing’s notion of a “universal machine” is the founding insight of the computer revolution, and today’s smartphones are the fullest embodiment of that idea we’ve yet realized, which is what makes them irresistible to so many of us. Many of us, I suppose, have at times made a mental list of the devices we once owned that have been replaced by smartphones: calculators, clocks, cameras, maps, newspapers, music players, tape recorders, notepads….
Earlier this year I described my return to a dumbphone and the many advantages accruing to me therefrom, but as my recent trip to London and Rome drew closer, I started to sweat. Could I maintain on my travels my righteous technological simplification? This was a particular worry of mine because I am also a packing minimalist: I have spent whole summers abroad living out of a backpack and a smallish suitcase. Maps wouldn’t add much weight, but a camera would be more significant; and then I’d need either to carry my backpack everywhere I went, to hold the camera, or else take a dedicated camera bag. Moreover, my wife was not going on this trip, and I wanted to stay in touch with her, especially by sending photos of the various places I visited — and to do so immediately, not once I returned.
As the day of departure drew nearer, that desire to maintain the fullest possible contact with my beloved loomed larger in my mind. This reminded me that I had recently spoken and written about the relationship between distraction and addiction:
If you ask a random selection of people why we’re all so distracted these days — so constantly in a state of what a researcher for Microsoft, Linda Stone, has called “continuous partial attention” — you’ll get a somewhat different answer than you would have gotten thirty years ago. Then it would have been “Because we are addicted to television.” Fifteen years ago it would have been, “Because we are addicted to the Internet.” But now it’s “Because we are addicted to our smartphones.”
All of these answers are both right and wrong. They’re right in one really important way: they link distraction with addiction. But they’re wrong in an even more important way: we are not addicted to any of our machines. Those are just contraptions made up of silicon chips, plastic, metal, glass. None of those, even when combined into complex and sometimes beautiful devices, are things that human beings can become addicted to.
Then what are we addicted to? … We are addicted to one another, to the affirmation of our value — our very being — that comes from other human beings. We are addicted to being validated by our peers.
Was my reluctance to be separated from my wife an example of this tendency? I’d like to think it’s something rather different: not an addiction to validation from peers, but a long-standing dependence on intimacy with my life partner. But my experience is certainly on the same continuum with the sometimes pathological need for validation that I worried over in that essay. So while I think that my need to stay in touch with Teri is healthier than the sometimes desperate desire to be approved by one’s peer group, they have this in common: they remind us how much our technologies of communication are not substitutes for human interaction but enormously sophisticated means of facilitating it.
A camera would have added some weight to my backpack, but not all that much. Packing minimalism played a role in my decision to pop the SIM card out of my dumbphone and dig my iPhone out of a drawer — note that I had never sold it or given it away! I was too cowardly for that — and use it on my trip as camera and communicator (iMessage and Twitter) and news-reader and universal map and restaurant-discovery vehicle and step-counter and…. But it wasn’t the decisive thing.
I do wonder how the trip might have been different if I had maintained my resolve. I certainly could’ve gotten some better photos if I had brought my camera, especially if I had also carried my long lens. (Smartphones have wide-angle lenses, which are great in many circumstances but very frustrating in others.) Maybe I would’ve sent Teri cards and letters instead of text messages, and she’d have keepsakes that our grandchildren could someday see. (Somehow I doubt that our grandchildren will be able to browse through my Instagram page.) And then I’d have uploaded all my photos when I got home and we’d have sat down to go through them all at once. But that’s not how it went.
Well, so it goes. I’ve been back for two days now, and probably should get out the dumbphone and switch my SIM card back into it. I’m sure I’ll do that soon. Very soon. Any day now.