Technology does not drive us apart – it brings us closer together
We should celebrate smartphones and Snapchat
If the law punished addiction we would all be in prison, because we are addicted to our phones.
We’re hopelessly distracted by them, helplessly devoted to them. Like conquered territory our hands and minds are occupied: texting, tweeting, liking, emailing, sharing, Candy Crushing, watching YouTube, watching Vines of Rihanna twerking on Drake. Our state is one of split attentions, divided sympathies; we find ourselves constantly and unstoppably stimulated.
My iPhone is the last thing I look at when I go to bed and the first thing I look at when I wake up. It is destroying my eyesight and my attention span. When it’s not there I feel it’s absence like an amputee still feels a missing limb. It is my frictionless entry to culture and fun and sex. It is the greatest diversion from work I have ever known. I love it. You love yours.
But the commentary on this enormous shift in our behaviour has been relentlessly negative. Smartphones are an implacable expression of millennial narcissism, say old people and smug people. They are the villainous tools of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. This is the lengthy argument of Luddites who write books with names like Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other or Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.
The central claim is that technology makes us forget what we already know about life, it precludes us from developing fully independent selves. We cannot cope with human relationships unmediated by algorithms and filters. We stare at our phones and the real world streams past unnoticed and unappreciated.
Above all, the quality of human relationships is said to have suffered. Parents are distracted by work emails at the dinner table and in the playground; children crave attention until they finally get an iPad chucked at them for Christmas. Gatherings of old friends can’t do a couple of hours in Pizza Express without checking their Gmail every 10 minutes. Teachers and professors must explain complicated ideas to a slow, turgid sea of zombified, dead-eyed sexters. Tech is totalitarian, the myth reads: it sucks the life out of us, and takes our souls in exchange for the convenience of not having to learn how to read maps properly.
And like your parents, these people are asking the same irritating questions over and over again. What are you doing on that phone? Why are you spending so much time on that phone? Do you realise how long you spend on that phone? When will you get off that phone?
Are they serious? Really? I don’t ever want to get off my phone. I realise exactly how long I spend on it. Given the choice between a life with a smartphone and without one, I choose the Snapchat life every time. I simply do not buy the idea that we aren’t fully human, aren’t fully whole, just because we can talk to our friends whenever we want, without any consideration for the poxy limitations space and time used to set on us. This brings us closer, it doesn’t set us apart. Why settle for one conversation when you can have five on five different platforms? Why write a letter when you can send a video, expressing the same sentiment, but faster, funnier and covered in emojis? When you can sext and tweet and send the perfect GIF on Facebook Messenger? I can have half a dozen superior personas online, all patterned and plotted, instead of the malfunctioning one I’m stuck with in real life.
We have multiple personalities online. Twitter and Facebook made us all publishers, Snapchat made us auteurs. The word genius gets bandied about – but Snapchat really is genius. Calvino said a classic was a novel that never finished what it had to say. By that metric every Snapchat story is a classic. Instead of talking to boring, inane people in the queue for a toilet at a house party, I can send something jokes to my friends in Manchester or France or Brazil. At any time of day I can see life’s insane and exotic variety. Our phones don’t cut us off from the world, they immerse us in it.
I guess some of what they say about millennials is true. We are over-specialised, over-educated, over-loved. But we have potential in a world that appears to have none. The one burden we don’t have to deal with, unlike any previous generation, is the question of how to live. We will film. We will photograph. We will edit and curate. We will share and like and love and envy. Ultimately, in our own strange way, we will control our heavily doctored lives. Our phones are the bars of our gorgeous cage.
Art by Bob Palmer.