Lately it seems as if every week another article comes out highlighting how society is becoming increasingly “addicted” to gadgets, and how that addiction is making it difficult to focus on tasks or people right in front of us – the irony of how “connectedness” makes us all more disconnected. See here, here, and here.
It’s pretty obvious that the ubiquity of gadgets, smartphones in particular, has made the impulse e-mail check or article read more commonplace, but I’m convinced that all these people suggesting that we turn off our gadgets, or even get rid of them, are missing a much deeper and fundamental issue: how we value (or disvalue) the person or task that technology is supposedly distracting us from.
I don’t believe that gadgets are inherently addictive for most people. They’ve just made it possible to do things that we actually enjoy (value) in situations where we previously had no choice but be stuck with something, or someone, we don’t truly care about. Put differently, having an iPhone makes it harder to fake it.
When I’m sincerely bored, whether it be at some obnoxious firm meeting or waiting in line, out comes the iPhone. But when my wife and I are at a restaurant eating a really cool dish, or when I’m laughing with my little girls, Tweetbot and Reeder just aren’t really on my mind. My iPhone seems to be more of a rescue from boredom than something constantly nagging me to unlock it at all times of the day. If you’re constantly checking your phone while on a date with your girlfriend, it says far more about your feelings toward your girlfriend than it does about your phone.
The legal profession is full of people who, but for the (increasingly rare) paycheck, couldn’t care less about the work they do on a daily basis. Getting rid of their iPhones or Blackberries (sadly, still popular) might get you more eye contact at a meeting, but it won’t address the fact that they’re bored out of their minds.
I don’t want to make the broad statement that authentic gadget addiction doesn’t exist – I’m sure it does. That being said, if you’re one of those people who thinks you may be addicted to your iPhone, ask yourself: are there any situations in which you don’t find yourself constantly checking your e-mail or twitter? If so, then your impulsive e-mail checking probably says far more about your detachment from people, or your work, or whatever you think you’re being distracted from, than it does about your attachment to your gadget.
Technology hasn’t suddenly made us not care about our relationships or our work. It’s just filling a void that’s unfortunately already there. A little honesty and self-reflection would probably go much further than pretending that merely turning off a device will solve the problem.