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.
During 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.
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.
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