Of Cigarettes and Smartphones

by Peter Saint-Andre


Have you ever watched an old movie from perhaps 75 years ago in which it seems that everyone was smoking cigarettes? We - who are, of course, far wiser - shake our heads at their benighted behavior because we recognize the horrendous health effects of smoking.

But have you ever wondered what folks 75 years from today might look back on with similar feelings regarding the benighted behaviors we exhibit nowadays? Might they perhaps home in on our compulsive use of smartphones?

Having just read Cal Newport's book Digital Minimalism, these questions are top of mind for me. Over the years I have progressively cut back on smartphone usage: I've deleted social media apps (I quit Twitter in 2016 but removed their mobile app years before that), I've disabled sounds and badges and other notifications, I've switched my phone colors to greyscale to make the interface less stimulating, etc. And now that I've left the tech industry, I am blessedly free of constant meeting reminders, hundreds of email messages a day, and above all Slack. Yet still the stupid phone beckons: hey, I could check for recent email, see if a friend has texted me, reload a news app (my favorite is Otherweb), and so on.

As Newport sees it, the problem is not only that the smartphone and related technologies are designed to pull us in, but that we don't have a philosophy of how they ought to fit into our lives. Moreover, we don't take our precious time and attention as seriously as we ought to; thus we find it all too easy to get sucked into endlessly distracting apps, superficial online "connection" via like buttons, and mindless information consumption. This pulls us away from what truly matters: deep learning, human conversation, and meaningful value-creation.

Although I don't actually spend all that much time on my phone, I appreciated Newport's call for digital minimalism (in good Aristotelian fashion, I might prefer to label it digital moderation). As a result of reading his book, I'll be making some further changes to my technology usage, such as checking email and messaging apps less frequently, perhaps deleting my mobile email app so that I send and receive email only on my laptop, and even looking into a minimalist phone like the Mudita Pure.

If I identify any helpful tools or insights, I'll post about them here in the future.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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