Smartphones are sneaky little devils. They arrive all shiny and new, full of promise. The phone does everything you ask, and more. You tell your friends about your phone. They say how lucky you are. Soon your phone is a good friend, too, and you're seldom apart. It's a lovely relationship.
But, once the honeymoon is over, your new "friend," turns on you, kind of a Fatal Attraction thing.
I don't mean because of the radiation or alien-directed beams that are shooting through your head every time you put your friend to your temple, though I suppose that could be true. Just using a smartphone -- no matter how safely -- is stealing valuable time , maybe even years, of your life.
It's what I call "the distraction of now."
Even before cell phones became insanely popular (you know, like 15 years ago), the malady was evident. It was maddening to receive a phone call from someone who wanted to put me on hold because someone else was trying to reach them. I found it downright rude when someone called me and then decided another call was more important. I developed a policy of telling the caller to call me back when they really wanted to talk to me. That ticked some people off, but, really, who was the rude one?
Those were the good old days, I'm afraid. The situation has devolved to the point where the National Safety Council reports that an estimated 11,000 injuries were reported between 2000 and 2011 as a result of "distracted walking." Utah Valley University is adding a "texting lane" to a busy staircase to avoid mishaps between purposeful students and those mush heads who insist on locomoting with their noses buried in their smartphones.
And it's not just young people. Recently I saw two 70-something women sitting side-by-side at a mall food court table, each independently tapping at their smartphones for a considerable period.
As one who grew up in an era of rotary dial black phones leased from Ma Bell, I've got to say that phone conversations were more utilitarian than fun back in the day. Of course, conversation is one of the lesser-used features of a smartphone these days. E-mail, texting, web-surfing, snapping photos, taking movies -- these are a few things that smartphones can do. These hand-held computers are marvelous things, really. And they're smarter than their users.
Nowhere is the "distraction of now" more obvious than with a smartphone. It's downright Pavlovian the way smartphone users react to every bell and whistle, each sounding more important than the one before. It's nearly impossible to manage a routine this way. Be honest, how many times have you interrupted something to deal with something else and gotten thrown way off track? The fear of missing something important is what keeps people tethered to their smartphones, but more often than not it's not important at all.
In many ways, it's the failure of the Internet to live up to its promise. When the Internet was new, its supporters were rapturous about its educational potential. That potential was soon appropriated by pornographers, scammers and entrepreneurs who found unique ways to connect us through gossip, music, photos, games and videos of cats. With the transition to mobile devices, fewer people find themselves researching the Byzantine Empire on a home computer while more people are playing Candy Crush or texting their BFFs on their smartphones.
The irony is that all this palm-sized computing power is nurturing a culture where instant gratification and a lack of patience are becoming the norm. If there's not an app for that, why bother. I fear that the "distraction of now" is hampering the flow of meaningful information while creating an over-reliance on a deceptively simple-looking piece of technology that has far too great an influence over how the user conducts his or her life.
So, if you don't know Iraq from Iran, can't explain why trees are good for the environment and can't name half of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court (or know why that's technically impossible), maybe a little re-grooving is in order. Your smartphone is smarter than you.
Larry Lehmer is a retired newspaper reporter and editor who thinks that change is only good when it makes things better. His current endeavor is to finish a book he's been working on about the Philadelphia years of American Bandstand. If you have anything to share, shoot Larry an e-mail here. If you want to comment about this post, do so in the comments section. If you're curious about Larry's other blogs (there are four in all), check out the links in the header of this blog.