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OPINIONS

Smartphones and Networked Individualism

Call me a dinosaur, if you must. I have never owned a smartphone, and I still carry one of those old Nokia models that lets me text, call and nothing more.

“Why don’t you just get a smartphone so I can get hold of you anytime?” friends have frequently entreated. Even my parents have been, with all the best intentions, trying to lure me into their Whatsapp conversations.

Perhaps that makes me a less-than-ideal friend and daughter, but really, I don’t want to be contactable at every instant, or ever-present in the virtual world.

On some levels it is impossible to dispute that having the Internet on your palm affords a number of conveniences. We now marvel at how we lived life before we had Google Maps, Facebook and the World Wide Web in our hands, and we feel we are empowered by our possession of these myriad resources. Can we really do without a smartphone today, we the hyper-connected generation?

It’s not obvious that we can: we sleep with our phones, and take no ease unless we know where it is. We hold onto them like a rosary, reflexively thumbing it even as we speak.

We feel our smartphones flickering in the periphery, in the middle of a lecture. In what seems like a nervous tic — we are compelled to look down on our device every couple minutes, as if there is always something very important to do or to attend to. You see, I’m not sure I will call being chained to a smartphone empowering.

I still startle each time I enter an eerily silent subway with passengers all hunched over their screens, tapping away at Candy Crush, scrolling down an endless Facebook newsfeed.

What became more troubling was realizing how family gatherings have become technology parties where both adults and children sit in the same living room, eyes glued to their devices. Or at dinner parties, where people could be physically there, but with their heads in the technological cloud except during the occasional clinking of glasses. We can be so alone together these days.

Sociologists say we are living in an age of networked individualism — people are not hooked on gadgets, they argue, people are just hooked on each other.

We are increasingly networked as individuals in loose, fragmented networks providing on-demand succor, rather than embedded in tight-knitted groups. We can choose who we want to interact with over the network, and overcome physical constraints of the social environment we grow up in.

In the past people lived in villages, today we live in cities and tomorrow we live in huge server farms we call “the cloud”. For many of us — and you, reader, if you are reading this presently on your smartphone or laptop — tomorrow is already here.

There is a general sense that this represents some sort of freedom that we have never had. But for all the semblance of freedom we have gained, I can’t help wondering what we might have lost.

How much of our lives are we secluding away as we divide our attention between the interminable notifications, emails and social posts that aren’t really that pressing? Is Candy Crush really that much more rewarding than, say, a serendipitous conversation with a random stranger you meet on the train? Or reading a book, for that matter? Yes, I forgot to mention how smartphones have also taken the book away from people these days.

More so than that, I think we have adopted a new lifestyle without giving enough thought to what it means to be constantly sharing aspects of our lives on our thin simulacrums online. Do radical sharing, openness and personal transparency make us happier, or more lonely and divided?

Is social networking, which smartphones have made enticingly easy, really creating more authentic identities, or entrapping us in a hive mind where groupthink leads to the cult of the amateur and an amnesia of the self? And what about the massive amounts of personal data and digital footprints we leave behind in the public-by-default, private-through-effort Internet culture we live in?

Clearly these are not easy questions to answer, and I imagine it wouldn’t be a simple choice between having a smartphone or a dumbphone.

In fact, even the choice to stay out of the virtual network is increasingly an illusion as maintaining an online presence is normalized to the point that not participating makes you unusual, even suspicious.

What surprises me, though, is how rarely we even ask these questions before we adopt a lifestyle of hyper-connectivity.

I might be getting a little nostalgic here, but I do miss the days when serendipitous interactions occur in the real — not virtual — world: random discussions over a book a fellow commuter is reading, or the nod of recognition from someone noticing that we were wearing the same T-shirt.

And more so than that, I miss a time when it had been easier for everyone to be fully present at a get-together, enjoying each other’s company without the distractions of a flicker or buzz on their phones.

At least for now, I am quite contented with my old Nokia, and am holding out on getting a smartphone. So, leave me a message after the tone, and I promise to call you back.

Contact Chi Ling at chilling ‘at’ stanford.edu

About Chi Ling Chan

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.
  • typing this on my banana phone

    For me, the aspect of what you describe that really disturbs me is smartphone use during activities that lose something when one is distracted, such as eating meals with friends and family. What I find really scary is I have had a couple of friends who were holdouts like me and swore they’d never be like all the smartphone-wielding others. Yet it took perhaps a month after they got their first smartphone for them to start behaving just like everyone else. It was really quite shocking. I think the problem is that smartphone activity is the sort of thing that makes it easy to lose track of time, so the user doesn’t perceive the blank spaces in their outward attention, whereas those around the person do. I think simply saying no may be a very wise choice.

    Another way to look at the matter is to think about useful and positive combinations. Examples: 1. Time-limited social networking, gaming, and IMing only on the computer on one’s desk. 2. A smartphone used for maps and data lookup, but excluding conversational fact-checking lookup; in particular, no social networking, games, or social texting. Then compare typical usage with these positive examples. My guess is that most smartphone users deviate quite a lot from the pattern they thought they’d have when they first decided to get a smartphone.

  • Chi Ling

    Yes, like I mentioned I don’t think this is a simple choice between having a smartphone or dumbphone – it’s really about how people choose to use technology. I just think that few people really give very deliberate thought about the choices they make, giving in to the deluge of social networking that end up strapping them to their phones all the time. Given how easy it is to lose track of time, and how pervasive the use of smartphone is today (to the extent that people with dumphones are starting to feel marginalized and excluded) there’s a need to think about how best to use technology, rather than adopting a change in our lifestyles without thinking about what this means for ourselves and others around us.

  • Sam King

    I don’t have Facebook on my phone, and my phone only buzzes when I’m getting a call or when I’m late for a meeting. For me, the two biggest changes after I got a smartphone were that I got much better about reading the news and reading books, both of which have led to serendipitous real-world conversations.

    If you look historically, you see arguments similar to this article discussing the introduction of the phone and the telegraph. A lot of people do use smartphones to disengage from people around them, but I’m skeptical that phones are the cause rather than just a manifestation — even with nothing in front of me, I can daydream or make snarky comments.

  • Chi Ling

    I agree. I don’t think smartphones are the cause – but they do make it easier for people to live in their virtual networks, and while you may be very disciplined about how you use technology (which is a good thing), you seem to me the exception rather than the rule. Smartphones are great, and empowering in many ways – and I know I will get it one day, I just don’t need it enough to want it now – but we need to be mindful about how we use it and how a lifestyle of hyper-connectivity changes the way we interact offline.

  • Adam Johnson

    Thanks for providing some resistance to the inertia of tech-“revolution.” Keep up the good work.

    If anyone is interested in further reading, I wrote the below two columns last year, hitting on many similar themes. I’ll also point out that I am, like the author here, an owner of a Nokia flip-phone :)

    http://www.stanforddaily.com/2013/04/04/constant-connectivity-and-the-human-condition/

    http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/09/30/why-i-dont-have-a-smartphone/

  • Chi Ling

    Good stuff. Cheers dumbphone-buddy :) And as for your project mate’s complaint – I feel you.

  • hmm…

    Let’s for a second assume that the technology is a tool to carry out our desired ends. Improvements in technology make it easier to accomplish things we want. Easier to be happy. Easier to learn. Easier to communicate. Easier to lose weight. Everything easy. No challenge.

    That’s all well and good, right? Not necessarily. Who are the people we respect the most in society? People like Abraham Lincoln, who rose to prominence from meager backgrounds. People like Navy SEALs, who undergo one of the toughest training regimens in the world, where 75% of those who start training do NOT finish. Or athletes who overcome disability/injury to be even better than before. Sure, I loved watching Andrew Luck dominate on the farm, but how sweet was 24-23 at then #1 USC (led by backup QB Tavita Pritchard)? How awesome will it be when the Cubs finally win the World Series?

    Looking back at your life, what moments are you most proud of? The things that came easy to you, or the challenges that you had to overcome? Do you learn the most in classes that are GPA boosters, or those that push your limits? Adversity gives life meaning, and yet today’s generation has no respect for it.

    Sometimes technology, by making certain things easier, brings about new challenges. Once we got a satellite into space, the next question becomes how do we send a man into space? Once you own proper mountaineering gear, what once unthinkable peaks can now be climbed and what new skills are needed to utilize said gear?

    But, for everything that it solves, what challenges does the smartphone create? Ironically, one of the biggest challenges for many smartphone users (though maybe not you, Sam) is disengaging from the device itself. It reminds me of chemical weapons: humanity is challenged to build them, then tasked to eradicate them.

    Something that differentiates the human from the computer is our capacity to suffer, and something that differentiates humans from animals is our ability to appreciate certain hardships. That is why I struggle with the idea of super-efficient everything. It requires us to create artificial challenges to feel fulfilled. Why does any young, urban professional need to run 26.2 miles in under 4 hours? It’s not his job, no one’s life depends on it, and his health is only marginally superior than if he always tapped out at 20 miles. But because nearly everything else in his daily life is laid out on a silver platter, he craves any challenge he can get. You don’t see marathons in Flint, Michigan.

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