Panic about young people's smart-phone use has entered a critical new phase this week. Two of Apple's largest institutional shareholders have asked the company to develop software to allow greater parental control of their kids' iPhones. In predictable fashion, the news media has been stoked to new heights of alarmism about smart-phone addiction and the abdication of parental responsibility. What is new about these developments is the detour from legitimate anxiety about the social pathologies we've come to associate with various social-media platforms—bullying, sexual predation, mental health concerns, suicidality—in favour of obsessing about the gadgets themselves. As Margaret Wente puts it, "Having technology at your fingertips is endlessly, aimlessly, mindlessly distracting. It's like TV, but squared. It sucks up all the time that we could spend on other things—such as catching frogs—and turns us into passive zombies."
Let us not be coy. The frog-catching hypothesis is absurd. There is no North American alive today who cannot remember a time when yakking on the (corded) phone, listening to the transistor radio, watching TV, reading Teen Beat or Mad, riding bikes, playing tennis, lifting guitar chops from Led Zeppelin records, or engaging in any number of similar youthful diversions was not vastly more interesting than catching frogs. Such sentimental twaddle is even more risible in those parts of the world where ownership of the coveted iPhone remains out of reach and thus serves as a status marker of almost unmatched salience. Read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death—a jeremiad for the lost values of the Enlightenment in the age of televisual media—and recall that it was written in 1985.
Indeed, as anyone who was young before the advent of smart phones will remember, we used to have dozens of bulky (and often expensive) gizmos that did for us what our little glass screens now do. We listened to sound recordings on gramophones, stereos, radios and Walkmans. We viewed moving images on televisions and movie screens. We read books, newspapers, magazines, comics, zines, pamphlets, and catalogs. We took pictures using analog cameras, we developed those images in darkrooms or paid someone else do it, and we shared our cherished photos by thumbing through them in bulky binders. We consulted calendars, day-timers, phone books, rolodexes, maps, dictionaries and encyclopedias—most of them in bound paper formats, some of them so unwieldy as to sit mostly unused. We typed and xeroxed paper documents, filed them in massive cabinets, and shipped them by conventional post. We endeavored to create the artifacts of high culture using paint, canvas, clay, and the analog instruments of music and film production, but were often limited by the need for expansive studios and expensive recording and editing technologies. For a host of pursuits that depended on the generation of timely data—stock-market trades, baseball scores, etc.—we were dependent on the distribution of mostly paper media at speeds over which we had no control. We played darts, poker, ping-pong and board games in many a cluttered rec room—and lest we conveniently forget, we also wasted endless hours playing billiards in pool halls, pinball in arcades, and Pong, Pacman and Space Invaders on bulky commercial consoles.
The point becomes obvious. The smart phone is not by definition a technology of zombification, but a digital Swiss-army knife of almost limitless dexterity and utility. The next time your kids are happily engrossed in their smart phones—presuming here that you are not also happily engrossed in yours—don't think about what mindless ephemera they might be sharing with their friends. Think about what Mozart or Einstein could have accomplished with one.