Has Your Smartphone Hijacked Your Life? Vote Here.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Feb. 22 2013 1:14 PM

Has Your Smartphone Hijacked Your Life? Vote Here.

A woman holds a cell phone as she stands next to a courthouse in the Andalusian capital of Seville February 20, 2013.
A woman holds a cell phone as she stands next to a courthouse in the Andalusian capital of Seville February 20, 2013.

Photo by Marcelo del Pozo/Reuters

Do you constantly fiddle with your phone? Do you never look up—or look another person in the eye? Does it ever feel like your smartphone rules your life?

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, Future Tense—a partnership of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate—held a debate on this topic in Washington, D.C. The motion: Your smartphone has hijacked your life. Supporting the motion were Christine Rosen, a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow at New America and a senior editor at the New Atlantis, and Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University. Their sparring opponents were the smartphone-loving Marvin Ammori, a Schwartz fellow at New America and the author of the new ebook On Internet Freedom, and Miriam Warren, vice president of new markets for Yelp.

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This was the first in a new series called “That’s Debatable,” held by the New America Foundation. At the beginning of the evening, the audience was decidedly against the motion. However, after closing arguments were made, 52 percent agreed that their smartphones were hijacking their lives. But what do you think? Before you vote below, read our participants' answers some follow-up questions. You can also watch the full debate here, and get a blow-by-blow recap on New America’s blog In the Tank.

Is it “more real” to do something without a screen? Why or why not?

Christine Rosen (in favor of the motion): Intriguing question. I don't think our screen-mediated activities are any less real than our unmediated ones, but in many cases there are issues of quality and control that we should think about. For example, when you talk to people face-to-face, you have the benefit of seeing their posture and facial expression, of hearing their tone of voice. You can smell and touch them (if you know them well enough, that is!). These rich human signals are degraded or missing entirely when people communicate through text, email, or Skype.

As well, mediated communication allows the user near-total control over every element of the exchange: when to start the conversation, when to stop it—and with social networking sites, even how to rate it. This level of control is very appealing—as a recent Pew Research report found, 63 percent of teenagers use texting as their primary form of communication—but if we become habituated to it, it makes us less patient with each other when we are in situations where we don't have as much control. Finally, there is the issue of opportunity costs: The more time you spend staring at a screen, the less time you spend doing something else. Our technologies are remarkable, but they can't give us more of our most finite resource: time.

Miriam Warren (opposed): Life without a screen is only more real than life with a screen in the same way that doing long division with pen and paper is more real than using a calculator. The moralists on the other side will undoubtedly say it's more "real" to do things without a screen. Of course, they'll be posting their answer from behind a screen, which means that your question and their answer weren't "real" in the first place! All of which takes us back to the point that "real life" is wherever you make meaningful connections, regardless of whether a screen's involved or not. I know my grandma would be pretty surprised to find out that her witty remarks to me on Facebook being reduced to the status of "not real" because they take place behind a screen!

Is there a difference between staring at a smartphone and staring at a book on the train? If so, what is it?

Daniel Sarewitz (in favor of the motion): Surely the point is not that smartphones simply distract us or allow us to ignore the stranger sitting next to us—obviously that's something we could always find a way to do. Rather, it is the comprehensive way that smartphones remake our world and our relationship to it that is at issue here. I can't see how you can argue that this remaking is not happening. You can argue whether it is a good thing, a bad thing, or some of both. But having the argument is important because everything from the nature of human relationships, to the nature of information, trust, and authority, is at stake. And because the resulting transformation is driven largely by an individualized consumer quest for convenience and coherence in a complex world, even though the consequences will be felt across all of society.

Marvin Ammori (opposed): The "downside" is the same, if you think the downside is that you're not paying attention to your surroundings or meeting the strangers sitting next to you. For decades, people have read books instead of talked to strangers. I don't think this is much of a downside; anyone who wants to talk to a stranger can do so, and I do it all the time, if my book is boring and someone looks interesting.

The "upside" is better. You could read a book on your smartphone, and in addition you could listen to books, read news, keep in touch with friends and family, get work done, etc.

How can we balance the individual benefits of smartphones and the potential negative effects on society?

Christine Rosen (in favor of the motion): The balance will be different for each person, of course, and as a smartphone user myself, I know firsthand the benefits this technology brings to people's lives. But if I could presume to offer a few broad suggestions:

- Know what you're revealing about yourself when you use your smartphone. Apps that track your behavior or location might be gathering a lot more information about you than you realize (or would be comfortable with revealing if you did realize).

- Don't forget that Facebook, Google, and the other major players in the world of Big Data are businesses: Despite their hyperbole, they are not humanitarians, they are profit-seekers. And we are their product.

- Be civil. Try not to use your smartphone to avoid the interactions of everyday life. Everyone needs to check out in public space from time to time, but our smartphones have made this ubiquitous and compulsive. It is the little pleasantries and acknowledgements and courtesies that we give to each other in social space that make everyday life bearable.

Finally, I think we could all take the advice of Henry James, who once wrote, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost." I think we lose something of the ineffable pleasure of being in the moment when we text, tweet, or Instagram every meaningful experience.

Marvin Ammori (opposed): There are two ways. Some things are within our easy control. We can, and do, make choices about using smart phones. We put our phones down before making out with our wives and husbands. We turn off our phones when playing street basketball. People can make their own choices. If they want to email the person in the office next to them, that's pretty silly. If they want to speak in person to someone across the world, that's impossible. So they can decide how to use the magic of the technology at their fingertips.

Some things require a social response. These are often public policy questions--for example, to tighten a few privacy laws, particularly on government access. This requires people organizing (through smartphones and social media usually!), and collaborating with organizations like NAF's Open Technology Institute, to have an impact in the policy making process.

So what do you think?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.