Smartphones by George Merrill

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On trains, on busses, on airplanes (before takeoff), in parks and at restaurants…even in churches and at ball games, the presence of smartphones is as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night. At the dinner table with the family assembled during holiday gatherings we see smartphones placed accessibly where forks and napkins once rested. Like a predatory animal, the smartphone is ready to spring, but by no means on an unsuspecting prey – this is a prey half anticipating and even welcoming the next assault. With solitary souls sitting contemplatively in their living room by a cozy fire, we can rest assured a smartphone is somewhere within reach.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, smartphones remain post-modern man’s constant companion. Few leave home without one.

I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving when I went into the den and found my step-daughter, her husband and four teen age grandchildren lounging in various kinds of repose; the adults typing on computers, the four grandchildren texting while the football game on TV played vainly to the den’s unheeding fans who were otherwise occupied in cyberspace.

Welcome to the digital age.

In 1654, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in room alone,” and I would add, be anywhere without his or her smartphone.

I am not a digital junkie. I would love to brag that I was able to beat the seductions of electronics, that I was above the mediocrity that it sows and that I live my life intentionally conscious of my thoughts and whereabouts. That is not the case. I simply can’t get the hang of how to use a smartphone.

I compose essays on a computer. I send emails. I text, but I could hand deliver my message to Baltimore from St. Michaels in less time that it would take me to text it. I carry the phone with me only occasionally. I check the weather to see what to wear that day. I simply cannot manage the several digital techniques required to negotiate a smartphone’s functions much less keep abreast of the new terminology that identifies its ever-increasing applications. Even with Facebook I’m always fearful that I’ll get snagged in some advertising pop-up or press the wrong button to inadvertently become friends with someone I really don’t like.

In short, it’s not character that has kept me from being seduced by the immediacy of the digital world, it’s that I’m electronically challenged. I write essays on my computer and use the spell check so my manuscripts are mostly ‘tdypo’ free. Not always.

My wife, Jo, is a digital whiz. She’s as at home in the digital era as crabs are to the Bay. She can buy, sell, enquire, research, and do most of her Christmas shopping on line. She can stay in constant contact with grandchildren or just play games, do word puzzles and happily entertain herself for hours with her smartphone.

I am a grunt in this online world, a wayfaring stranger often lost in the wilderness of cyberspace.

St. Paul once observed that our weaknesses can be our strengths.

There’s growing concern about the effect electronic communication is having on our psyches and on our culture. What is at risk is our ability to be focused, be alert and attentive to what may be going on at the moment. In short, the digital era with all its conveniences is invasive, and like a persistent fly, constantly demands our attention. The smartphone is messing with our minds.

Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport is not optimistic that will power alone can easily tame the “ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” He recommends a month long digital detox, a period of purification to declutter the mind by taking a complete break from all optional technologies. His observations parallel the process of achieving sobriety in alcohol addiction: those in recovery learn that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough. For Newport, one technology can be too many, a thousand is not enough. Few, if any, alcoholics believe that after detox you can manage controlled drinking. Newport on the other hand, claims that after digital detox, and a period of total abstinence, one may slowly reintroduce technologies carefully, a little like learning to sip rather than gulping. He holds that controlled messaging is possible.

I confess that I am speaking with forked tongue in this matter. In writing this essay I was not sure I knew what the difference was between an iPhone, smartphone and an android. I googled my question and got an informed enough answer so I understood the general idea that they are, for practical purposes, similar although they may perform different tasks.

The glut of information immediately available to us in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse; it presents problems of its own. The ability to assimilate information is no indicator that we’ve learned anything. To “know” is more than having factual data at hand. A reflection on this very issue long before our digital era is found in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Chorus’s from the Rock:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A young boy once asked his father; “Dad, where did I come from?” His father long dreaded the day, but he’d prepared himself well. He researched the data appropriate to teaching a youngster about human sexuality. He went on at some lengths with the boy, from physiology, psychology, biology and even romance. The boy remained attentive, but began to look perplexed.

“Any questions?” the father asked.

“I thought we came here from Chicago.”

Wisdom is in understanding the question first. Learning the appropriate answer follows.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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