I’ll say it. I love my iPhone. I have the iPhone 12 Pro Max. It’s big, yet still fits in my back pocket. It would fit perfectly on a belt-attached phone holder, but my son Ryan told me to stop doing that back when I carried a Palm Pilot. “Dad. A phone is not a fashion accessory.” Fine, Ryan, it’s in my back pocket.
Why do I love my phone? You all know the reasons, but here are my main ones:
- I love having everything in one place. It’s incredible.
- I have all the tools I need to record new memories.
- Anytime I witness inspiration for a future blog post, I can snap a picture or write it down in Evernote.
- I can find the answer to almost any question that I am wondering about.
- I have almost all of the pictures I love, and I can share them anytime.
- It wakes me up in the morning, keeps and reminds me of my calendar, informs me about world events, and facilitates my communications with my family and friends.
- And that’s just scratching the surface.
I still marvel at all that my phone can do. And combined with my Apple watch, it’s even better. I can keep track of calories burned, steps walked, laps that I swam, even the stroke that I’m swimming and the time of each lap. And whenever I get a text or something else I have deemed important enough to allow my watch to notify me of, I get an inaudible, unobtrusive, gentle pulse on my wrist. All spectacular technology has the illusion of being almost magical, and that’s how I still feel about the awesome technology in my hand (or back pocket) and on my wrist.
And my friend Jenn is trying to ruin everything.
Let me explain.
After publishing my blog post on Paying Attention, Jenn told me I needed to read a book she had found profoundly impactful, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, by Johann Hari. And then she gave me the actual book – with pages that I have to manually flip. Who in the world reads real books anymore? I love reading on the Kindle app. As long as I have my phone in my back pocket, I can pick up the book anytime or anywhere, and I always have my highlights and notes for review. I was nice to her, but inside I was disappointed in her lack of adaptation to the times.
But actually, it’s a great book, and it hurts me to say this, but it would have felt wrong to read it on my Kindle app. Hari argues that 2007 was a landmark year, primarily because of the invention of the iPhone. My wife Jill had long been asking why they did not add a phone to the Palm Pilot, and Steve Jobs brought her vision to life with an emphasis on function and aesthetic beauty. Sixteen years later, so many of us find the phone a central aspect of our lives.
In the 2017 remake of Jumanji (an underrated movie with a great cast), one of the characters transferred into a video game is despondent about no longer having her phone, and can’t stop talking about it. They meet up with a young man who has been trapped in the game since 1996, who, after watching her repeatedly bemoan the loss of her phone, says, “Does ‘phone’ mean something different in the future?” Yes, it does, Jumanji-1996-guy. Yes, it does.
Hari argues that the centrality of cell phones in our lives has:
- Dramatically decreased our ability/desire to read books and other in-depth analysis. Most of the world now consumes information in short tweets or slightly longer online news articles. The amount of time we spend reading books for pleasure has plunged since 2007 (after already suffering a decades-long decline after the advent of television), and newspapers are barely surviving. Ryan and I were discussing this recently, and he added, “The changes in the way we consume media that you’re talking about have dried up the demand for long form written analysis. As a result, there are fewer and fewer spaces that actually provide it. Which is a shame, because that type of thoughtful writing—which, not for nothing, is what is happening on this blog—provides more context and nuance than a couple of guys on a hot mic ever could. And that type of context and nuance is beyond important today.”
- Overly simplified a highly complex world. That would be great if the world were simple, but it is not. Brief and emotionally charged communications, the ones we find on our phones, imply that we don’t need to read in-depth analysis to understand a highly complex world. That implication is incorrect.
- Increased our exposure to outrage. Without question, what garners the most clicks and likes is any message of outrage. Indignation sells. And when we read enough of it, anger comes more easily to all of us.
- Decreased our ability to give our sustained attention to matters that deserve it. There are multiple studies that show we are less able to give our attention to something than we were just two decades ago.
- Filled the slow times in our lives with mindless browsing. When there is a pause in our lives (a line at the grocery store or the DMV, waiting for a meeting to start, etc.), so many of us fill that moment by going to our phones. And when we don’t take time for stillness, for daydreaming, for mind-wandering, or for slowness in our lives, we are missing opportunities to truly enjoy precious moments here on earth.
I am a big fan of the concept of flow. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, the godfather of flow, describes it as “… the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” When I am in those states, I am usually swimming, bicycling, playing pickleball, or engaged in other activities uninterrupted by phones or anything else. If we let them, phones will disrupt, even fragment our efforts at achieving states of flow. As Hari writes, “Fragmentation makes you smaller, shallower, and angrier. Flow makes you bigger, deeper, and calmer.” He adds, “Slowness nurtures attention. Speed shatters it.”
As I sat in my chair, engrossed in reading my paperback book, I realized that maybe being off my phone, even for reading, creates a greater sense of calm and peace. Maybe my initial criticism of my friend Jenn was a little unjustified. Maybe she was actually trying to help. I’m at a point in my life now where I am not on call 24/7, and I believe it would be good for me to slow down and not to act like I still need to be tethered to my phone.
One of my favorite pictures is from 2022. It’s a photo of Tiger Woods hitting another perfect golf shot in front of adoring fans, almost all of whom are enjoying the moment through their phones. But look closely, and you can’t help but notice Mark Radetick, the tall guy who is a picture of stillness as he quietly takes it all in, holding a 24-ounce Michelob Ultra instead of a phone. I want more Mark Radetick moments in my life.
Similarly, Jill and I were watching a spectacular Independence Day fireworks show, and we were surrounded by people videoing it and watching it through their phones. Jill whispered to me, “Hashtag – It’s happening now.” Hilarious, and sadly true.
So, what to do? I’m not giving up my phone. I still think it’s amazing and I still love all that it can do. But maybe I don’t need to love my phone quite so much. In Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the fascination with the atomic bomb ends up destroying most of the world. I don’t know if our fascination with the phone is destroying us or not. For all of its amazingness and potential, I do know that it’s not making us smarter as a species. It tempts us out of our moments of slowness, pondering, and daydreaming – the moments that so often precede moments of inspiration, innovation, and creativity. And it’s certainly hindering our abilities to truly absorb special moments in our lives.
As I’ve written in many of my posts, I am going to continue my efforts to slow down, be on my phone less, and maybe even read a few more books made out of paper.
To get updates on when my next post comes out, please click here.
Post #92 on www.drmdmatthews.com
- If you haven’t read Steve Jobs’ biography, and his drive for perfection when inventing the iPhone, it’s a worthy read.
- I’ve only touched the surface with Hari’s work. He spends a lot of time expressing concern for the digital surveillance that is happening to all of us, and has some radical ideas for how to address that. To read my full review, click here.
- I often write as a way to remind myself of the way I want to live. Publishing a piece gives me extra incentive to live out what I write. I must really want to slow down in my life, because I’ve written about this several times, including:
- I rewatched Dr. Stangelove as I was researching this blog post. It holds up. It’s still hilarious. Peter Sellers and so many other stars and future stars are perfect in their satirical roles. The movie highlights how our fascination with anything can lead to a lack of logical thought and horrible consequences, especially when we have amazing technology and individuals who are highly trained in knowing how to use it.
- Dr. Strangelove photo from Reelgood.
- Mark Radetick photo from Inc. Magazine
- iPhone photo from caselove.com.