Smartphones are the new Cigarettes? Really?

According to Mark Manson they are

Its quite alarmist title but to be fair his recent book “The subtle art of not giving a fuck” (I have started reading this book btw) also sums up a lot; although his blog about feminism really spoke to me.

The start of Marks arguement stems from going to gym and having people checking their phone in the middle of a session.

And the coach got pissed, yelled at them to put their fucking phones away, and we all stood around awkwardly.

This proceeded to happen two or three times in the class, as it does in pretty much every class, and for whatever reason, today I decided to speak my mind to the women glued to her phone while the rest of us were working out:

Is there really nothing in your life that can’t wait 30 minutes? Or are you curing cancer or something?

Point taken (although I did that nervous laugh when first reading this). I have lots of thoughts about this myself too, especially after coming back from Tokyo. I’ve been grappling with it and started thinking maybe I’m just getting old?

Smoking & Texting

I have been reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together book and haven’t even got to the part about smartphones yet. I’m still early in the book about robots and how we are react to them. Fascinating and slightly scary in someways.

Mark calls it Attention pollution

…somebody else’s inability to focus or control themselves then interferes with the attention and focus of those around them.

Then goes into detail…

…with the explosion in smart devices and internet available pretty much everywhere from Timbuktu to your mother’s ass crack, attention pollution is infiltrating our daily lives more and more without us realizing it.

It’s why we get annoyed at dinner when someone starts texting in front of us. It’s why we get pissed off when someone pulls their phone out in a movie theater. It’s why we become irritated when someone is checking their email instead of watching the ballgame.

Their inability to focus interferes with our (already-fragile) ability to focus. The same way second-hand smoke harms the lungs of people around the smoker, smartphones harm the attention and focus of people around the smartphone user. It hijacks our senses. It forces us to pause our conversations and redouble our thoughts unnecessarily. It causes us to lose our train of thought and forget that important point we were constructing in our head. It erodes at our ability to connect and simply be present with one another, destroying intimacy in the process.

Ok I hear you MarkAttention is precious thing, I’ve said this for years in blog posts and presentations around perceptive media.

Human attention is a scarce commodity

But I disagree on something and you would expect so as a person who finds it slight weird being offline for too long.

Its about choice, social norms and context.

For example I am writing this blog in Ezra & Gil coffee shop with no headphones listening to conversations around me. Ezra includes free wifi from Telecom which you need to click on every hour or so. Theres plugs around the sides of the Cafe, on the high tables best suited for laptop users. While I was in Iceland I spent sometime Reykjavik Roasters which has no wifi deliberately to encourage a different kind of environment. I could have gone around the block to one of the many Te & Kaffi’s but choose to give it a try (choice).

Back to Ezra, some of the conversations are person to person, some are video chat via phone or laptop (these tend to be quieter – social norms). I personally find this more useful for my own mind when writing and thinking. Hence I regularly work out of the northern quarter to help me think. However I don’t want someone on their smartphone while in the cinema (contextual).

Its helped having a smartwatch and I deliberately delay most of my notifications.

Simple but slightly naive solution to Mark gym problem. The coach makes it clear at the start what kind of attention is required. The people then have a choice if they take part or not. If this is broken social norm will take effect. If the notification is so big it cant be ignored, context will mean you can’t carry on anyway.

I do agree there is a problem but comparing it to smoking isn’t quite right in my head. Yes people fill in the silences by looking at their phones, yes I find ringtones in public very annoying (who has their phone on anything but vibrate now a days?) and yes there is a big problem with notifications. But unlike smoking there are big benefits to smartphones too (unlike smoking).

With the right amount of self control, context awareness and established social norms; it could be something incredible. But then we get into what they are actually doing on the phone which is a whole different blog.

Stop making stupid people famous

Author: cubicgarden

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.