Sam Leith

In praise of smartphones

Being ‘present’ is over-rated

In praise of smartphones
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The online PE teacher Joe Wicks has announced, in a fit of self-reproach coinciding with the launch of his new television programme, that he considers himself addicted to his smartphone. He says he forced himself to take a whole five days off social media in order to be more ‘present’ for his children, and that doing so ‘opened my eyes to just how much I struggle with it on a daily basis’.

‘I justify the use of my phone for work,’ he said in a post on Instagram (I won’t labour the irony, but he really did deliver this revelation in a post on Instagram), ‘but in reality I’m probably 30 per cent productive with it and actually helping my community and 70 per cent of the time I’m just consuming mindless content, distracting myself, getting triggered and annoying myself, eternally scrolling and just avoiding something else.’

None of that sounds like a bad thing to me at all. Being ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’, in Eliot’s phrase, is at the heart of the human condition. The guilt is the problem, not the smartphone use. It is an observable pattern of human history that every time a new technology or artform comes along which represents a great leap forward in human happiness and fulfilment, there will rise up a great chorus of conservative-minded bores, bossy-bootses and killjoys determined to tell us that it is not to be trusted: that it is unhealthy, mentally degrading, and morally suspect.

Plato, we’ll remember, had it in for the advent of the written word. His descendants have been attempting to harsh our buzz ever since. Tea, coffee, psychedelic drugs, the spinning-jenny, novels, the theatre, dancing, rock music, masturbation, television, women wearing trousers... they’ve all had the treatment.

I’ve been reading John Locke recently, and he was firmly against ‘most sorts of plums’ as having ‘a very unwholesome juice’. When agriculture was first thought of, I dare say there were a whole bunch of Sunday newspaper lifestyle pieces deploring the move away from health-giving hunter-gathering.

So it is with smartphones. We’re told that they rewire the brain, that they destroy the attention span, and that they keep us from focusing on what’s really important. We’re routinely warned that scrolling on our smartphones releases dopamine – the same chemical that our brains produce when you’re having sex or doing exercise. Yet having sex and doing exercise are widely held to be good things. Dopamine makes us happy. If we can’t be bothered to do any exercise and nobody wants to have sex with us, why should we be deprived of all that yummy dopamine?

And why shouldn’t you, why wouldn’t you, find your smartphone more interesting than the people you have around you? ‘Being present’ for your children is necessary, I suppose, in small doses – but anyone who has spent much time around children, especially their own, will know from bitter experience how boring and sticky they are. Far from harming your mental health, not being present with them all the time is to be positively encouraged.

Consider this thing you have in your pocket and for which, comparatively speaking, you pay a pittance per month. You have the Great Library of Alexandria jostling there along with your wallet and your car keys. With a few swipes of the thumb, you can be reading the greatest and wisest and most beautiful things that humankind has ever produced – or, if you prefer, chugging through an old Carl Hiaasen novel.

It is a universal jukebox: you can listen to everything from Haydn to Hendrix as loudly and as long as you like. At your fingertips, too, are just fantastically entertaining videos of teenagers huffing great spoonfuls of cinnammon and being sick, or making huge working models of Babbage’s Difference Engine in Minecraft.

Above all, there’s the great bogeyman of social media – another supposed scourge of the modern world. Yes, of course, it gives you access to the thoughts of many of the stupidest and most obnoxious people on earth – but it doesn’t force you to listen to them. You might want to jump into the comments to moan about the beastliness of Owen Jones or give some plank with a Roman general as an avatar a burn from which he’ll never recover, but that’s entirely your choice.

It also gives you access to the thoughts of many of the brainiest and best informed and most interesting people. The affairs of the world unfold there in real time. You will be better informed and more entertained by spending four hours a day on your smartphone than you ever will be spending that time ‘being present’ wherever it is you have the misfortune to physically find yourself.

Should we feel guilty about wasting our time playing online chess, Hearthstone or Candy Crush? No more guilty than we should feel about wasting it playing offline chess, or going on circular walks, collecting stamps or practising ‘mindfulness’ or meditation. As the sagacious Kurt Vonnegut put it, ‘we are here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different’.

What else are you supposed to be doing? Having a chat, I suppose. One of the great burdens of human life is the pressure we come under to have a chat. Having a chat is what we did for entertainment before we had entertainment, and it is deadly. They’re pretending to be interested in the boring and ill-informed things you have to say, while you pretend to be interested in the boring and ill-informed things they have to say. Both of you, really, would much rather be watching telly on your phones. All the characters in Jane Austen were, essentially, killing time while they waited for smartphones to be invented.

Thomas Hardy’s novels brilliantly set out quite how miserable it was when the only people you had for company were – unless you had money, a horse and an education – the people who happened to live in the village in which you grew up. The most you could hope for was to have someone chuck a bit of a dead pig at you by way of flirtation. That is a problem we solved: first with the railway, universal literacy and so forth, and now with digital technology.

Isn’t it lovely to spend so much time together?
‘Isn’t it lovely to spend so much time together?’