I got my first smartphone in 2006, during my freshman year of college. It was a BlackBerry Pearl, a gray rectangular brick with a white chiclet set in the middle of the keyboard. I was obsessed with it, and spent hours a day emailing, playing Brick Breaker, and coming up with clever BBMs — BlackBerry’s proprietary text messages, which could only be sent to other BlackBerry owners and, therefore, became a status symbol among nerds on campus.
In a world of simple flip phones, having a BlackBerry was a superpower — an Alexandrian library in my pocket, ready at a moment’s notice to look up any fact, settle any dispute, or communicate with anyone I’d ever met. It was less like getting a cool new gadget than gaining a kind of ambient hyper-awareness, assembled via a constant trickle of real-time updates.
I assumed that, eventually, the novelty would wear off. But it never did. Instead, I dug in deeper. When the iPhone was released in 2007, I lined up to get one. I started a Twitter account and set up an RSS reader. I formed group texts and got news alerts pushed to my home screen. My phone time kept creeping up — first to three or four hours a day, then to six or seven. Most nights, I slept with it inches from my head.
Until recently, my phone usage didn’t feel particularly dysfunctional. But a year or two ago, I crossed the line into problem territory. Social media was increasingly making me irritated and angry. My twitchy attention span, ground down by years of push notifications and breaking news alerts, made it difficult for me to read books, watch full-length movies, or carry on extended conversations with my friends. I felt myself pulling back from the world, and my offline life began to seem grainy and sepia-toned in comparison to the dynamic, high-resolution universe in my pocket.
For months, I tried to kick my phone habit by uninstalling Twitter and Facebook, turning my screen grayscale, or shuffling apps into hard-to-access folders. But nothing worked. My screen time kept rising, and my phone kept interfering with my life.
One night, I got a notification telling me that my iPhone now had a screen-time tracking figure. Did I want to know my statistics? I did not, but it told me anyway. My daily average, it said, was nearly 6 hours. My highest one-day total: 8 hours and 28 minutes.
For years, I believed that my devices were expanding my awareness, enriching my social life, and extending my humanity in new directions. But I realized — first slowly, then, in the bathroom of an Alvin Ailey performance, all at once — that I was less a user of these devices than a servant to them. Every day, I paid attention to what my phone told me was important, let its beeps and buzzes determine my agenda, and absorbed its priorities as my own.
My phone had once been my trusted assistant. But at some point, it got a promotion and became my demanding, hard-driving nightmare of a boss.
You might not have a phone problem as severe as mine. But I’m willing to bet that, at some point in the past several years, you’ve found yourself checking your phone more often than you’d like or missed something important because you were too busy scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook or Twitter feed.
My goal isn’t to make you feel guilty or scold you about phone addiction. I just want to encourage you to examine your relationship to your devices — which are, after all, the robots we spend the most time with.
It’s odd to think of our devices as robots. But our phones, tablets, laptops, smartwatches, PCs, and connected home devices are, in fact, conduits for some of the most advanced forms of artificial intelligence ever created. Companies like Meta (Facebook), Alphabet (Google), and Twitter have built sophisticated, planetary-scale machine-learning algorithms whose entire purpose is to generate engagement — which is to say, to short-circuit your brain’s limbic system, divert your attention, and keep you clicking and scrolling for as long as possible.
These technologies have fundamentally changed what it means to use a device. Steve Jobs famously described the personal computer as “a bicycle for the mind,” and for years, the metaphor fit. Like bicycles, computers could help us get places faster and reduce the effort needed to move ideas and objects around the world. But these days, many of our devices (and the apps we install on them) are designed to function less like bicycles and more like runaway trains. They lure us onboard, tempting us with the possibility of rewards — a new email, a Facebook like, a funny TikTok video. Then, once we’re in, they speed off to their chosen destination, whether it’s where we originally wanted to go or not.
That these forces are largely invisible doesn’t make them any less real. The algorithms that power platforms like Facebook and YouTube are many times more powerful than the technology that sent humans to the moon, or even the technology that allowed us to decode the human genome. They’re the products of billions of dollars of research and investment, exabytes of personal data, and the expertise of thousands of Ph.D.s from the top universities in the world. These AIs represent the kind of futuristic superintelligence we saw in sci-fi movies as kids, and they stare out at us from our screens every day — observing us, adapting to our preferences, figuring out what sequence of stimuli will get us to watch one more video, share one more post, click on one more ad.
Humans have worried about the degrading psychological effects of machines for centuries. (Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations that automated factory equipment was making us “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”) And in recent years, sounding the alarm about the negative consequences of smartphone use has become a thriving cottage industry. We now have “screen detox” resorts for adults, screen-time consultants for kids, and “digital sabbath” groups that encourage members to unplug completely for one day a week. We have even invented new phones to solve the problems with our old phones — like the Light Phone, a $250 “dumbphone” with a black-and-white display that can only be used for calling and texting.
Again, I’m not a screen-time fundamentalist, and my goal isn’t to convince you that you’re using your phone too much (even though you may well be). Instead, I want you to do something I wish I’d done years ago: to take an honest, searching look at the relationship you have to your devices, and ask yourself the question, Who’s really in charge here?
The answer to this question is important for a few reasons.
First, in order to do the kind of deeply human work we will need to do in the coming years — all of the social, surprising, and scarce tasks that will separate us from the machines — we need to be in control of our own bodies and minds, and be able to harness and direct our own attention.
Second, we need to understand the way that ceding control to our devices can harm our relationships with other humans. The psychologist Sherry Turkle has written at length about the phenomenon of phubbing — a strange-sounding but useful neologism that is short for “phone snubbing” and that describes the act of avoiding interactions with someone in favor of using your phone. She writes that phubbing amounts to “a flight from conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.”
Studies have shown that phubbing — or merely having our phones near us while we’re interacting with other people — makes it harder for us to have enjoyable experiences with other people. One such study, conducted at the University of British Columbia, observed more than 300 people sharing a meal at a restaurant with friends and family. Half the participants were told to keep their phones on the table, with the ringer or vibrate setting turned on. The other half were told to silence their phones and put them away in a container. After the meal, the participants were given a questionnaire about their experience of the meal. People in the phones-on-the-table group reported enjoying their meals less and being more bored and distracted than people in the phones-in-a-container group.
All the evidence we have suggests that what matters is how we use our devices, not just how often we pick them up. Studies have suggested that certain types of device use are better for our mental well-being than others. For example, using Facebook passively (scrolling through our feeds, watching videos, absorbing news updates) has been shown to increase anxiety and decrease happiness, while using Facebook more actively (posting status updates, chatting with friends) has been shown to have more positive effects.
Which brings me to the third reason it’s important to demote our devices, which is that by letting our smartphones and other devices steer our lives, we’re missing out on many of the amazing, humanizing things we can use these machines to do.
For me, this hit home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when screen-based activities became my primary forms of social interaction. I attended happy hours and game nights over Zoom, held long FaceTime calls with my family across the country, and sent flurries of group texts with my closest friends.
What these positive experiences had in common was that they involved other people, and that while technology made them possible, I ultimately chose them, controlled them, and set the terms of my engagement. I didn’t get manipulated into these interactions by a clever UX hack or an algorithm’s invisible nudges. And while the companies whose tools powered those interactions may have benefited from my engagement, they gave me something of real human value in exchange for my attention and my data.
The difference between using our devices in a way that amplifies our humanity and a way that diminishes it, in other words, usually comes down to who’s doing the driving. After all, smartphones and social media apps have real benefits, but they are also fundamentally extractive tools that exploit our cognitive weaknesses to get us to click on more posts, scroll through more videos, and view more targeted ads. They do this with the help of AI, which allows them to more accurately predict our preferences, steer our attention, and activate our brain’s pleasure centers with flashy and exciting rewards. And by making it possible for us to be constantly stimulated, they deprive us of the opportunity to be bored, to let our minds wander, to cross-pollinate ideas and get lost in our imaginations — experiences that are central to our humanity, and without which we might as well be robots.
Kevin Roose is the technology columnist for The New York Times, host of Rabbit Hole, a New York Times podcast about internet culture, and the New York Times bestselling author of Young Money and The Unlikely Disciple.
From the book Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation by Kevin Roose. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
This article is featured in the March/April 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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