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Smartphones and Networked Individualism

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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

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.