There’s a great scene in the show High Maintenance that captures a phenomenon I (and, quite likely, you) often ponder: unplugging. In it, a man sits working in a typically cool Brooklyn café, slowly realizing that he’s doing the same thing as everyone else—and it’s no coincidence. Staring into a laptop screen, he sees curated ad after curated ad, the sensation brought to life when the guy he asks to watch his laptop is wearing the exact same retro-styled overalls he dawns. A flight to Lisbon (an escape from it all!) he eyes is, it just so happens, being watched by 500 others. Then, peering outside, he notices a distinctly offline man sitting next to an old motorcycle, leafing through a worn-out Isaac Asimov novel, and, finally, picking up his phone (a dumb phone). Envy ensues.
I’m thinking about my relationship to screens more lately after reading the Canadian journalist Michael Harris’s wide-ranging reckoning The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. When I picked up the book, I anticipated it would elicit a pretty simple reaction—that is, to drop my phone in the nearest shallow pond and head to a book store, intent on saving both my eyes and my soul. And, I should mention, I could totally do this right now! I’m in a weird, in-between stage of my own life where I only receive, like, 3 emails of any importance per week. But, unfortunately, Harris’s thesis isn’t that simple. For each page that makes me want to stare into space and embrace the power of the solitary thought, there’s another that convinces me that adapting to a collective attachment to the smartphone is, yes, pretty lame, but also natural, inevitable, and even a sign of some sort of progress.
A particularly interesting school of thought cited by Harris belongs to Susan Blackmore. She argues that, “technologies with a knack for replication will obviously rise to dominance”. Like evolutionary theory, the best technologies, she posits, will succeed in setting new norms, as they are not only widely replicable but, by nature, incredibly addictive. Their intellectual value and reputation as “productive”, however, are set wholly by outside forces. This is where I, at least, began to question my default inclination to label time spent on my phone as inherently wasted. Each iteration of information-dissemination technology was met with strong criticism; the printing press and books themselves, as Harris chronicles, encountered powerful enemies:
W. Benjamin: “The distinction between writer and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character”
T.S. Eliot: “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
So, perhaps shortly after the printing press came to be, you might’ve received judgmental glances from elders for not looking up from the ink in your freshly printed pamphlet. And maybe in 75 years we’ll long for a time when people had to hold something, anything in their hands to look things up.
The applications of the technology we’ve readily adopted, nevertheless, leave room for questioning. Right now, I’m sitting in a cafe and everyone is taking pictures of each other (and that’s fine). What will they do with these pictures? It’s not clear. Would previous generations, had they powerful cameras in their pockets at all times, have done the same thing? The more I think about it, the more I think the answer is, “probably, yes”.
All of this being said, lately I can’t help but feel like something stands in the way of declaring absolute gratitude for the technologies that content me for roughly 17 hours per day. It’s true: if I’m sitting in my apartment for an hour and there isn’t any form of media accompanying me, I start to feel uneasy. Arriving at the gym and realizing I’ve left my headphones behind makes me, without pause, turn around to go get them. Even so, I get a lot of satisfaction (and some weird form of self-reward) from spending the day without my phone or computer, and am able to read a lot more when I can’t check Instagram every two pages.
Later in that High Maintenance scene, the onlooker tries to adopt a less tech-reliant lifestyle, clumsily struggling to text his friends back on his new dumb phone. I feel like that guy, simultaneously admiring an offline life while acknowledging that, without quick access to the internet and its conveniences, I couldn’t really do anything at all. So I’ll leave the bulk of my skepticism behind, and, when I find myself picking up my phone a little too often, try to remember one of Thoreau’s observations at Walden: “in proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office”. Oof!