Everywhere we are, every spare minute, we feel it. The bent neck. A lull in the conversation, and in silence our eyes wander down to our phones lying face up on the table. An orphan buzz, and our investigative — hopeful? — hands shove themselves into our pockets. A ding, and our story is halted for an awkward pause that serves as tacit agreement to steal a glance before a finger flick dims the screen and the story can continue. Unless it’s ok to reply really quick?
While the fear of becoming addicted to our technology is today’s hot topic, it’s nothing new. In 1983 an author named Lester del Rey published Helen O’Loy, a story about a robot and her creator falling in love with each other, back when when we feared technology would destroy us through violence, not love. But sometime between now and then our perspective changed. Our devices today are not crude, humanoid robots as we predicted, they’re small and intimate. They’re in our ears, on our wrists, in our hands. They’re lovable.
Spike Jonze’s Her was a watershed, the first mainstream evidence of our shift in attitude towards technology. But even our reaction to Her missed the point — Theodore didn’t fall in love with an operating system, he fell in love with his needs being met, with being fulfilled. Unfortunately for him, this was fleeting. We learned from the film that technology doesn’t fulfill us.
But unlike Her, our technology isn’t going anywhere. It’s not drifting into a nether land of 1s and 0s, it’s staying with us for good — in our ears, on our wrists, in our hands. And we’re responsible for defining our relationship with it. It’s our problem. So how do we solve it?
It starts by realizing our problem with technology isn’t between us and our devices, it’s between you and me: we’re not addicted to our phones, we’re addicted to people.
Relationships as Dark Matter
Relationships define who you’re with, where you are, and when and why you do something — every action we take is informed by this context. From the micro to the macro, our world is built around relationships. In this way, relationships are a lot like Dark Matter:
Dark matter is a hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe. The existence and properties of dark matter are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, radiation, and the large-scale structure of the universe.
Just as Dark Matter can’t be seen, the existence of relationships can only be inferred from its “gravitational effects” — you know we’re friends because we spend time together, crack inside jokes, and share food. These are the connections that motivate us and account “for most matter of the universe,” and when pieced together form the “large-scale structure of the universe:” relationships.
So if the world is built around relationships, and devices are built around us, then their foremost role is to enrich and simplify our lives, our relationships.
The Power of Portals
The most effective way in which devices do this is by serving as a portal for Dark Matter. This is why my screens are my most treasured possession — my girlfriend lives on the opposite side of the country, my parents live on the opposite side of the world, and my best friends are sprinkled in between. Screens enable me to keep closest the people are who furthest from me, they allow us to maintain relationships otherwise impossible to upkeep. Without my screens, I lose connection to the people who are most important in my life. If I lose relationships, I lose the foundation of my world.
But the power of screens as portals goes much further than just maintaining relational foundations: it also expands and creates foundations. Baron Davis, a former NBA All-Star who grew up in the gang saturated community of South Central Los Angeles, revealed in a recent interview that he believes the issue of gang violence is now fixable largely because “digital media” allows kids
“to venture outside of their world and have access. Where 20 years ago when I was growing up in it you had to literally have a car and go somewhere and have an experience to enlighten you to be like ‘yo, I can make it out’ and have multiple opportunities to do that; now it’s handheld, you can be anyone you want or have access to people that you admire.”
It’s obvious that we’re innately wired to desire a foundation of relationships because we were made to live in community — otherwise we’d never feel lonely or isolated — and screens enable us to transport ourselves into communities that we would never have been able to belong in otherwise. That’s beautiful.
But because we’re addicted to people, and screens are a portal to anyone, anywhere, at any time, we can’t help ourselves. Even though I can instantly connect to anyone, anywhere doesn’t mean I should. We need solitude, but solitude scares us. So we use our screens as a portal ready for us to immediately overdose on because we’re insecure about ourselves in the here and now.
Reflections from the Mirror
We can’t blame our devices for this, though, because they merely reflect back to us exactly what we want — devices are also mirrors. And if we look at our reflection in our screens, we’ll see that we’ve taken the unprecedented connective capability of our devices that enable us to build and maintain relationships and distorted it to seek fulfillment. We want validation from each other and use our devices as an excuse, a shortcut, to get it. They’ve become one big button for our pleasure center and an escape from the fear of being by ourselves. John Herrman, co-editor at The Awl, experienced this realization when he switched from an iPhone to a low-end smartphone:
“The easy tactile pleasure of a nice phone makes you feel like you’re at the center of the internet, which is designed to respond to your desires. A shitphone is a comparatively degraded interface with the world. A flicker, a stutter and a momentary freeze are all it takes to remind you that what we think of as the internet — the interminable feeds — will move on without you, and that this deflating realization awaits every giddy or obsessed smartphone user.”
Remember how Dark Matter couldn’t be seen from telescopes, only inferred from its gravitational effects? As we developed our devices, we began quantifying what was previously only inferred. We used to have friends, now we have 487 friends. Experiencing life became the documenting of experiencing life so that these little boxes could confine our lives into digestible bits of evidence and meaning. When I die, there will be a digital trail of practically every day I’ve lived on earth. And yet, relationships, our time on earth, is all ephemeral — the “existence and properties” of our Dark Matter are bigger than the story our devices will ever be able to tell.
As we’ve slowly come to realize this, we’ve begun to doubt ourselves, asking “are devices good?” In our panicked attempt to find the answer we’ve developed a myth that switching on Airplane Mode, deactivating social media accounts, or downgrading our devices frees us to experience some kind of nirvana. But as John discovered in his experiment, that’s not necessarily true:
“My idle moments were filled with idle thoughts and actions of similar or lesser value to another glimpse at the internet. I looked at the sky more, which was nice, and I stopped looking at my phone when I walked, which was a terrible habit anyway. Sometimes I looked at other people buried deeply in their nicer phones and felt like I had ascended, somehow, in the slightest way possible. I definitely had not: I had gone from compulsively checking my phone to watching others compulsively checking theirs.”
John’s story illustrates that over time we’ve let how we interact with our devices enslave how we interact with each other and ourselves. As Frank Chimero, author of the seminal What Screens Want, points out, we’ve got it all backwards:
“You can talk all you want about making new social norms, but you make technology fit values, not make values conform with tech.”
Questions and Answers
It turns out we’ve been asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “are devices good?” we need to ask “what are devices good for?” The answer is simple. Devices are good for being portals and mirrors for our values, for Dark Matter. For frictionless ways to build and maintain connections between us while protecting and encouraging solitude. So that in the future everywhere we are, every spare minute, we’ll feel it. In our minds, in our hearts, in our deepest parts. The connection between you and me. Our relationship.