Smartphones – Friend or Foe?

Renee Imes80By Renee Imes
Student at Kapi’olani Community College
University of Hawai’i

In modern Western civilization, I would venture to say, most of us own a smartphone. They are in essence another appendage, and being without that tether or lifeline could be cause for despair. I wonder though if this device is turning us into a zombie-like society that uses technology to think, instead of our minds.

smartphone mapDuring the summer of 2005 when I went on my healing cross-country driving, hiking and camping sabbatical, I used a road map. I really loved my maps. The pages were well-worn, dog-eared, and had many coffee stains. I had two maps: one was a Thomas Guide and the other, Rand McNally. My maps had details such as highways, urban roadways, gas stations, landmarks, and major hotels as well as campgrounds and more. I have doubts anyone under the age of 40 has ever used a map such as this. My maps and a couple of tour books were the only tools I had. I did have a cell phone, but this was when the phone was just a phone for calling, not equipped with all the bells and whistles of today’s smartphones. I had it only for emergencies and as a means for family to reach me.

Using the maps made me an interactive participant in my travels. I had to know how to chart out the best routes to get from one city to the next, and from state to state. I had to know my fuel tank and how far a tank of gas would get me, so that meant I had to know how far in miles each gas station was as well as rest areas. Many times I had to quickly create detour routes to avoid construction or weather issues.

Maps also became a social tool. When I was in campsites, gas stations and rest areas, my fellow travelers and I talked at length over our maps. We pointed out routes to take, what to avoid, the best eating establishments for a budget and more. We felt like kindred spirits. 

Fast forward to today. We have smartphones that can do everything, outside of satisfying our basic human survival needs (eating, sleeping, etc.). Instead of road maps, there are many applications for navigation. Google Earth is, perhaps arguably, top dog in the navigational arena. No doubt, navigational applications, GPS software, and similar products are useful. A quick search nets much more information than you could see on a road map. You can do searches and make calls, perhaps to ask about vacancies or to make reservations.

What happens when technology fails, for example, when you are in an area with poor reception? What happens if you drop and break your phone in the middle of Death Valley as you get out to take a photo with your smartphone camera? What happens when you don’t have the basic skills to read and use a road map and youʻre stranded with no idea which way to head?

Using smartphones can dumb us down as a society. Technology is great, but itʻs very important to always have a backup plan. Nowadays, people are so tuned into their phones, and the ability to rapidly do searches is a phenomenal luxury. This comes at a cost, though, when people forget how to think with their mind. We are in essence rewiring our brains to think differently. However, this isnʻt always a good thing. Using technology to think in a superficial and automated way versus the ability to read, think and absorb deeply, using cognitive thinking, could be a detriment.

In August of this year, Michael Snyder shared an eighth grade exam from 1912. This exam illustrates just one way I think we are dumbed down. How many of us today, as adults, could take this exam using only the resources available to an eighth grade student a century ago? I could be wrong. However I do not think many would be able to carry out this task with those guidelines, myself included. Our smartphones are banks, encyclopedias, shopping centers, dating sites, tour guides, and so much more. If asked these questions, I would venture to say our immediate reaction would be to reach for our smartphone or iPad and do a quick search. Have our minds become soft?

Aside from navigational purposes, another aspect that could be considered a downside, and sometimes humorous, is how smartphones are interwoven into our society. They are an extension of our bodies. We take them everywhere and coddle them like little children. We buy them clothes such as skins and cases to look pretty and match our personalities or hard-case boxes to protect them. Isnʻt that what we do with our own children? We dress them up, we protect them, we keep them close and never go anywhere without them, we buy them insurance — and the list goes on and on. We assign ringtones, we use voice recognition software to type and do searches. I think some people think Appleʻs Siri is a real person inside that little box. It is quite comical. We have our lives in that phone. Our contacts, texts, emails, photos – itʻs all there. Without an online cloud-based server, we are in big trouble if something happens to our phone-child. There are even applications that can test our heart rate and blood pressure and give a diagnosis when we enter symptoms. It is a music player that has replaced mp3 players.

I, as with many people, have gone into a coffee shop and seen tables of patrons who are together, yet all on their smartphones. My classmate, Walter Bray, even mentioned this in his writings for class. Whatʻs especially comical is friends or family could be sitting right next to each other or in another room and, instead of turning or getting up to talk, they text. It is enough of a task getting a family together at the dinner table even once a week for face to face talk. Today, itʻs an equally large task to even get people to talk to each other. Really, we are creating a lazy, faceless, socially inept society. The benefits of technology are one thing; however, the benefits are definitely trumped by the side effects.

What surprises me also are the types of people I have seen with a smartphone glued to their ears. Monks and Nuns — I especially find it unusual that they even use them. I have always thought of them as rejecting the modern conveniences of society, of considering things such as smartphones as a material possession want rather than a need. Standards and levels of acceptability have really changed in our society.

Also, before smartphones, we had no choice but to use our voices. How many times have you sent a message and then immediately after smacked your head with the palm of your hand while uttering “Duh!” and regretting sending it? We hide behind our smartphones, our thumbs feverishly typing venomous words, and without a face in front of us, we don’t have the usual checks and balances. We type first, think later, regret immediately. Did you know there are even etiquette classes to discuss this very issue?

Technology is a wonderful tool. It can get us out of a jam, book a romantic dinner reservation to surprise our sweetie, pay a bill, and it is a great business tool. It can also be a detriment. I think we are creating a zombie society: we move slowly, not aware of what is going on because weʻre either tired or will-less, speechless humans operating with automatic movement. Yes, the standard definition of “zombie” is the walking dead. Really, we arenʻt that far removed. There is no brain-eating going on and while not voodoo in the truest sense of the word, isnʻt it similar? These little devices can captivate and control humans and turn us into little marionettes. Who is the true puppeteer and thinker here – is it the human who is holding the device or is it the device itself?

At the beginning of the year, Harvard Business Review (“Vision Statement”) released statistics about how much time we spend on our smart phones and what our activities are. Per HBR, an average of 46% of the time is spent on “me time,” which includes basically just surfing the net or watching movies. What is not included is email and SMS – two of the largest activities – so the numbers are even greater. Who remembers when “me time” was spent taking a walk, having a bath, sharing a romantic dinner, going for a drive or to a park or visiting friends? I remember when watching a movie meant actually going to the movie theater!

Smartphone obsession is an international phenomenon. While the HBR report did not include email or text/SMS, van Rijn, a writer in the Netherlands with a company called emailmonday, has done an excellent job gathering and conveying a massive amount of statistical information. He includes a chart about how much time different countries spend accessing email from their smartphones.


Itʻs definitely worth taking the time to look through, as well as doing your own research to see just how much of your own time is spent on a mobile device, and this isnʻt limited to just smartphones. iPads and other tablets are in the same arena now as smartphones. I am just as guilty of this. When I give someone my number, I always add that I do not answer my phone often and that I am more of a texter than a talker. Children are often the topic of discussion, with their own zombie-like personalities when they spend hours on end in front of their players. Perhaps we as adults should scrutinize our own actions. Children mimic what adults around them do. If we are not better examples, then we can hardly complain about the children.

For about a week, I lent my smartphone to my partner to use for a media project he was working on. He wanted to use the HD camera and video functions on my phone. That was an interesting wake-up call for me. I turned over my phone without hesitation because he needed it. Also, I told myself that if I cannot do without the phone for a few days, then I should not have it at all. Suffice to say, it was a very long week! I found myself many times reaching for my phone. I did not realize how much of an automated zombie I had turned into. I constantly reached for it to text, check my email, check the bus schedule, surf the web, you name it. I used that phone as a space filler, and I discovered I crossed over to the other side and forgot how to use my mind. I even had magazines and books with me to read for pleasure to pass the time. However, when I picked them up, I could not focus on them. I was so used to my little mind-numbing smartphone that it is as if I forgot how to read a magazine for pleasure. I had nothing to distract me or make me look unapproachable. After a couple of days of this, I realized how I needed to get out of that zone and start using it again as a tool and not let it control my life.

Smartphones are great tools. However, they cannot take the place of our ability to think.

Works Cited

Bray, Walter. “The Conductor.” Leahi: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Snyder, Michael. “Newly Discovered Eighth Grade Exam From 1912 Shows How Dumbed Down American Has Become.” The American Dream 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

van Rijn, Jordie. “The Ultimate Mobile Email Statistics Overview.” emailmonday n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Vision Statement: How People Really Use Mobile.” Harvard Business Review January-February 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

2 Responses

  1. Back in July 2012, I collaborated in the Italian subtitling of , about the Nexus 7 smartphone, Google Glass and the Jelly Bean version of Android. I got so fed up with the overuse of “exciting” and “excited” by the Google staff in this over-two-hours video that shortly ater that, when I lost the electrical cord of my definitely unsmart, 2001 vintage cell phone and was unable to buy a new one, I spent a whole afternoon looking for another as-unsmart second hand cell phone, which probably cost me more than I’d have paid for that Nexus 7 smartphone. But it does just what I want it to do.

    However, months before this subtitling, I had got a tablet running on Android and I’ve been very happy with what I can do with it (I haven’t allowed it to geolocalize me, though): so I’m not against smart stuff. More than what it does to our social relations it’s the “cool” “exciting” hype around it that irritates me. No problem with nuns and priests or grandmothers using smartphones: they probably just use them because they need to do what they can do with them.

    Before you were born, it was “Television – Friend or Foe?”, with pretty much the same arguments you developed here. Then same with fax, videotape, e-mail, the Web. Then Nicholas Carr’s mistaking his problems for Google’s. This topos possibly goes back to the first use of voice as a communication tool. Tools are tools, not friends or foes.

  2. Renee covers the good and bad of smart phones. Step back a moment and remember how those pocket calculators were going to dumb us all down. I have to wonder if slide rules were assigned the same blame. I couldn’t afford a slide rule until I reached college and was required to have one. Taking exams without my slide rule would have meant fewer questions answered and more mistakes made.

    Map reading remains a topic for most science curricula. Look at a topographic map to find the steepest spot. Your phone won’t do that yet.

    I cannot believe how many people I see going about ordinary tasks such as shopping for groceries with their phones to their ears — and their not talking shopping lists. I don’t like to be bothered unless it’s important or it’s from friends and family at distant locations letting me know they’re safe and happy (or asking for help if they’re not).

    I prefer the asynchronous text and email to synchronous voice for most things. That way I’m not being interrupted in the middle of something. Our mobile phones help here by allowing me to have a business meeting anywhere. I once did business while on a hike in the Angeles mountains.

    I don’t think that smart phones take our thinking away. They just enable that to happen more readily. We have always had those who choose not to think, but they had more problems than those same types do today. It also wasn’t as obvious who they were. If you have learned good thinking skills, they won’t disappear as soon as you get a smart phone. Instead, you’ll use that phone to expand your consciousness and become, in a sense, smarter.

    I’ll repeat that smart phones (they’re not really smart at all) enable lazy thinkers to become more lazy in thinking. They don’t take thinking away. Thinking, real thinking, is hard work (not the perspiration-inducing kind, of course). It becomes harder, even painful (metaphorically), if you don’t do it often.

    The above leads me, inevitably, to the conclusion that we must focus more on teaching thinking skills in schools. Instead, we seem to be heading rapidly in the opposite direction, Common Core and NGSS notwithstanding. Technological tools such as smart phones should expand our minds and our awareness, not the opposite.

    If Renee is correct, then Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future becomes even more scary. I don’t like what’s in his book, The Singularity is Near, and don’t believe his predictions past a few years out. However, when human minds can link to powerful computers, whether personal or global, Renee’s arguments suggest that everyone will become thoughtless slugs vegging out on continuous entertainment and being programmed by some sort of Big Brother in change of world computing. Ray Kurzweil sees this future as the expansion of human capacity to think and to do. What if the opposite were true?

    Teaching our young people how to think and the joys and rewards of good thinking skills will go a long way toward making the future look more like the Kurzweil version than the Imes version. Step by inevitable step (e.g. Google glass), we’re heading there. Prepare or devolve.

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