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Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

Posted October 22, 2015 2:30 PM by Hannes
Pathfinder Tags: ethics smartphone addiction

A story from the annals of Zen Buddhism goes something like this:

A man at a crossroads sees his friend on a horse speeding by at full gallop. Assuming he's on some urgent, important business, the man on the ground shouts, "Where are you going?" The man on the horse turns around and replies: "I don't know, ask the horse!"

A growing movement has been viewing certain technologies, namely smart mobile devices and social networking, as the horse. These folks--cultural researchers, psychologists, sociologists, proponents of mindfulness--have become concerned about technology's effects on our attention span, memory, relationships, and social skills. While some decry these critics as modern-day Luddites or technophobes, the red flags they raise seem annoyingly plausible, even to younger generations of phone addicts.

That most behavioral addictions exist--including smartphone addiction--is hotly debated, at least in the DSM and other standards. Whatever we want to term it, however, experts in multiple fields have raised red flags about "mobile phone overuse," its more PC name. Psychologists warn that while smart device use gives the illusion of being connected to others, it's actually reducing our capacity for unique face-to-face emotions like true empathy. Philosopher and social critic Louis Székely (okay, actually comedian Louis C.K.) purports that smartphone use and even texting can rob us of our very humanity (Warning: possibly offensive language and content).

But we humans have developed a more general predilection for using compulsions to ease our emotional malaise. Most critics of technology accept this and point to the fact that we fill that gap with overwork, smoking, drinking, hoarding, shopping, and eating, and that these behaviors outdate social media and smartphones. And while science tells us that phones are ruining our sleep and memories, drinking, smoking, and overeating ruin us in other areas anyway.

I happen to fall on the Luddite side of the smartphone argument. I belong to the 15% of "young[ish] adults" who don't own one. I see an individual's attention, as well as my own conversations, interrupted by phone alerts ("phubbing," if you will) all the time. They're evil, I tells ya. But while it's easy to make the argument and back it up, I get into problems when considering the history and social impact of technology.

It's undeniable that technology shapes and changes human life. The pre-1850 world of carriages and horses was changed immensely by the stunning growth of the US railroad system. And there was plenty of opposition to the perceived dangers of such an innovation, as evidenced by the poster on this page. An 1858 article in Punch complains that "[telegraph wires] within 100 yards of every man's door" would place an individual "always in company with all our acquaintances" and that "solitude would become impossible." Not only is this a fascinating look at technological opposition, it also foreshadows a common argument put forth by those opposed to the spread of social media, some 157 years later. Of course, widespread use of the telegraph enabled development of the telephone and eventually the internet, both of which seamlessly connect our global community for better or worse.

To return to the Zen side: it's unfair to decry anything as objectively good or bad. Amazing new technologies that enable us to never get lost again or speak to someone halfway across the world at zero cost come with pitfalls. So what do you think? Should technologies be expected to change human nature and culture, for worse as well as better? Are these ethical questions worth considering--for manufacturers, critics, and consumers?

Image credit: US National Archives and Records Administration

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#1

Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/22/2015 3:15 PM

I have to agree that cell phones are introducing a social pathology.

However, it is more of a fad and at some point it will wear off as technology moves on.

Well, not really wear off, but find its Zen center as its own lesson.

What was it that master Kan said to Kwai Chang Cane? Ah, it was, know when to let go of those things which do not serve you, but force you to serve them.

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#3
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/23/2015 10:40 AM

Ah, that reminds me of a koan about Tom Knight:

A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on.

Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: "You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong."

Knight turned the machine off and on.
The machine worked.

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#11
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

11/09/2015 10:22 AM

which is why i just got rid of CL broadband!

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#12
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

08/21/2017 2:45 PM

However, it is more of a fad and at some point it will wear off as technology moves on.

No,... its here to stay in one form or another of its original.

Only to be replaced with a derivative of that technology... and that will get replaced with yet another derivative.

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#2

Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/23/2015 10:02 AM

Well put AH...

I've given up television, except for the occasional Netflix unwind, only to find myself lost when it comes to conversations about what happened on this show or that, or whos sports team did that special sports thing better than your sports team.

I've also deleted all social media, which has promted anger from a few for "Why did you unfriend me!??!!" and "Why do you ignore my posts/messages!?!?!"

I've chosen to be active and creative, not reactive, conditioned, or easily programmed by herd mentality.

Yeah I'm wierd, but I have more fun and try to make a positive difference

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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/23/2015 2:05 PM

The way I look at it I am both a free and happy man. I have books to read, books to write, people I love, and good work to do.

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#9
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/26/2015 6:06 PM

Well said yourself MM. I would like to save that and shave with my kids as they grow up.

Scott G.

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#5

Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/23/2015 7:04 PM

I think it's great that we're discussing this topic. I'd like to add something and I hope others can add to it.

First I'll start by admitting that I don't own a smartphone. I have two cell phones and both are "internet ready", but neither are what would be considered a smartphone.

Second, on days I'm out of the office, I use my cell phone a lot. It's my communication device when I'm away from the office and it must be working when I need it. Things that are important to me are a long battery life, it must be easy to use and I can't afford software crashes.

Third, my better half has had a smartphone since the iPhone came out. She thinks it's the best thing around, but I notice that she's always looking for a place to plug it in. I'll admit that the battery life has improved since the early versions, but she can't change the battery and she doesn't want to carry one of those USB power devices. I've seen what happens when there isn't a place to plug it in and I can't afford to have a dead or near dead battery.

Fourth, I've noticed that many of the most successful people I know don't have a smartphone. They have a flip phone that they use for phone calls or text messages. I ask them why they haven't changed and the most common response is that they don't need a smartphone, so why get one.

Fifth, I have my phone with me when I'm working on my properties. I've dropped my phone over a hundred times, it's gotten pretty wet, yet it still works. I've seen too many smartphones with cracked screens or they're in the shop getting fixed.

Sixth, on many occasions, I have accidentally left my phone sitting on the shelf at he store. Sometimes the customer service desk has it, while other times its still sitting where I left it. Nobody wants my old flip phone!

Last, when I'm out of the office, I take my tablet with me. I see my tablet as my portable computer. I see my phone as a communication device. I see a smartphone as a both, but if I kill the battery using it as a computer, then I've also killed my communication device. To me, that's not acceptable.

Let me know what everyone here thinks.

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#6
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/23/2015 9:08 PM

I don't have a smartphone because I don't want to foot the bill, and I'm pretty sure I'd use it compulsively. And yes, my dumbphone's exploded after being dropped at least 100 times, with not much noticeable damage to its performance. (I don't have a flip phone, but I do have a touchscreen phone with the little keyboard that flips out when you want to text or type something.)

The only downside to not having 24/7 internet for me is the lack of GPS and the ability to find a certain retail establishment or gas station or something. I don't mind being lost but I do mind running out of gas.

This quote neatly sums up my belief about smartphones and a lot of other new gadgets:

"The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable. Embrace the now intolerable." --Alan Jacobs, 79 Theses on Technology

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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/24/2015 6:24 PM

I am reminded of an old musical western movie that, also addressed the general issue.

At one point in the movie, the question (musically arose) "where are (you) going?'', where upon, the protagonist (Lee Marvin, of all people) said, in effect, "I don't know, so Paint Your Wagon and come along!...'' And so, they all did...

.

.

.

In more current terms, when is the general public gonna get it's collective (head) out of it's (I-phone) and collectively see that, politically, we're goin' the (wrong way) ? ...

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#8
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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/26/2015 9:36 AM

I more or less solved the problem with dropped smart phone: wear two shirts, both with pockets. The inner shirt pocket carries the phone, and it will not fall out (as readily), or just leave the darn phone on a table somewhere it will be safe.

Outer pockets are for important stuff, like cigarette case and lighter.

After that part about Lee Marvin, I am sitting here with that song going through my head over and over..."I was born under a wandering star"...

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Re: Questioning Smartphones and the Philosophy of Technology

10/28/2015 12:12 PM

Wander on...

but still, try to watch your step...

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