No artifact shapes our daily lives so much as the smartphone. Most of us are ashamed by our dependence on them, but we don’t consider tossing them out—for that seems impossible to do. Nor apparently, do many parents consider withholding them from teenagers, so necessary they seem to the new shape of social life.
So instead, we lurch back and forth between irrational outbursts of frustration and ironic statements about the mess we’re in, and then pick up the phone for another look. The fact of a problem is clear, with no dampening of demand. Cartoons that poke fun at how smartphones make us blind and deaf are now a daily feature of life, but they haven’t had an appreciable effect on the sales of devices. Journals of opinion routinely ask questions such as “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” but the ensuing debates remain theoretical, with little change of behavior. New books on digital distraction are published every month, but our investments in Apple, Facebook, and Google don’t get any smaller. We are conflicted, but not about the central fact: the smartphone now defines our way of life, our culture.
Sociologist of technology Sherry Turkle has used the phrase “digital natives” to characterize those among us for whom “life in a media bubble has come to feel natural.” Aren’t we all digital natives now?
If so, then we need to make an honest appraisal of the situation. Though addressed from different angles by psychologists, technology theorists, neuroscientists, and political scientists, we are dealing with a fundamentally cultural phenomenon. We have entered into “the digital age,” a pattern of life that can be characterized with reference to three central paradoxes. Comfortable with personal devices, digital natives are technologically adept, but liable to compulsive behavior and distraction. Plugged in, notified, and curious, digital natives are strikingly well-informed, but highly susceptible to a sense of purposelessness and anxiety. And thanks to social media, digital natives maintain constant connections to each other, but don’t experience being or physically present to their friends and families.
At the heart of these paradoxes is the internet-enabled media device itself, whether held in the hand, worn on the wrist, or open on the desk or table. The promise of the device—especially in forms easy to carry at all times—is to make present to us information or persons otherwise at an unapproachable distance, and to connect us to that information or to those persons in real time, no matter what else we may be doing at the time.
It seems possible to contend, then, that at the heart of digital culture is the implicit claim that we will always be doing two or more things at once. As a society, we may succeed in drawing the line at texting while driving, but otherwise we seem to accept that the phone is on and being used for something, more than likely some things, during almost every other activity throughout an ordinary day.
It is hard enough to give attention to two tasks in the same physical and mental space—St. John Paul II is said to have been able to compose an encyclical at the very same time as he had an assistant reading another document to him. But we all know instinctually that we simply cannot give our complete attention—sensory, emotional, and mental—to more than one person or more than one complex task or consideration at a given time.
What we can do is to switch back and forth between one object of attention and another, and try to do so quickly enough that the person we are supposedly attending to isn’t able to notice what we are doing. This is hard enough when a group of people are sitting in the same space together, trying to understand each other. But it stretches the limits of human attention when we try to switch our attention between physical and virtual space. Try as we might (in meetings, at the dinner table), we are not really capable of fooling our colleagues, our spouses, or our friends when we pretend that we are still with them when we are staring into the screen. When we try, we don’t fool them, and we don’t even fool ourselves. In almost every case, when you pull out the phone, some task, some person, is at least a little bit cheated.
The digital native, constantly tempted to do something else, develops a habit of trying to do two (or more) things at once. If it were possible, we would be superhumanly powerful. As it happens, we in fact become less able to attend in a powerful and sustained way to any single person or object that is worthy of our attention.
In the long run, then, the central dynamic of digital culture threatens to make us shallow thinkers and lonely individuals. We try to attend to more than one thing, and we end up not able to attend properly to anything.
This is the reason why this powerful technology requires those who use it to find more powerful resources for self-mastery. If we are to control our information technology and not be controlled by it, then we must first rule our desires to be connected and to be informed in the ways in which these devices offer.
The task will be difficult because the desires these devices appeal to are themselves normal and good, some of the most basic desires of human nature. They are, at root, religious desires.
We are social animals, and we live by and for friendship. We are, moreover, creatures who yearn for eternal life; we do not admit that death and separation from loved ones is normal, natural, or good. Death in itself is tragic, which is why we rejoice to have a Redeemer and a Savior in Christ. And every separation from a friend is a little taste of death. Thus our desire to maintain our friendships forever, across whatever distances may exist. We also yearn for the everlasting fellowship of heaven, in which all differences and discord will be forgotten—which is why we wish to multiply our friends to infinity. Social media, then, answers desires deep within us.
The same is true about the promise of information that the internet offers. We do not admit limits to what we can know or learn. Our minds are open to the being of all things. We search for the smallest particles of matter, galaxies at the end of the universe, the springs of life and death here on earth, and for the knowledge of the invisible world of the soul, the angels, and God. The internet promises us instantaneous access to all that our fellow human beings have thought, conjectured, created, and imagined. It presents itself, then, as the complement to our nature as intelligent beings and the response to our deepest desires as finite creatures.
It is because digital communications and information technology pose as the answer to these deep desires that—in its most popular form, the smartphone—it now defines our culture. If we are to navigate the new digital age—to be informed without becoming anxious, connected without becoming oblivious to those around us, and able to use the smartphone as a tool without ourselves becoming an extension of the machine—then we need to understand ourselves better and to think deeply about what our lasting and eternal happiness really consists in. We need, in other words, an approach to self-mastery that is sufficiently deep and comprehensive to give us compelling reasons to set aside our smartphones, to look at the other before us, and to engage reality.
The stakes are high. If we continue to tell ourselves that all is well and that there is no such thing as smartphone-addiction, we are heading for a cultural precipice with our eyes closed. If, to the contrary, we acknowledge the problem before us—and our own natural limits that lie at the root of the problem—then there may just be a chance to make these powerful tools into a force for good.
Christopher O. Blum is Academic Dean of the Augustine Institute’s Graduate School of Theology. Joshua P. Hochschild is Monsignor Robert R Kline Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University (Emmitsburg, MD). They are the authors of A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction published by Sophia Institute Press (2017).