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Is Our Fear of Smartphones Overblown?

Clip courtesy of the always amusing Pessimists Archive.

During interviews for Digital Minimalism, I’m frequently asked whether I think our culture’s concerns about new technologies like smartphones and social media represent a fleeting moral panic.

The argument goes something like this: There are many technologies that were once feared but that we now consider to be relatively tame, from rock music, to the radio, to the telegraph famously lamented by Thoreau. Isn’t our concern about today’s tech just more of the same?

This is a genuinely interesting question that’s worth some careful unpacking. My main issue with this approach to the issues surrounding smartphones and social media is that it implicitly builds on the following logical formulation:

A. There exist technologies that concerned us when new, but that turned out to be harmless.

B. Smartphones and social media are a new technology that concerns us.

C. It follows that we will later come to believe that smartphones and social media are harmless.

This syllogism, of course, is flawed. To make it correct, the existential quantifier in proposition A would need instead to be universal, as in every new technology that concerns us ends up tame.

But we know that this isn’t the case as there are many examples of technologies that sparked concerns that were ultimately validated. Think, for example, of nuclear weapons, unregulated industrial food safety, and television, which really did end up massively changing the American social fabric in the ways critics warned.

The real question then is what type of concerning technology are smartphones and social media: harmful or harmless? I don’t think we have a clear answer yet, but there’s enough evidence that it might fall into the former category that we can’t simply dismiss it without further interrogation.

Such nonchalance would be illogical.

40 thoughts on “Is Our Fear of Smartphones Overblown?”

  1. As I’ve considered your thoughts on digital minimalism the past few years, I’ve wondered about this myself, and a related question: has a society or culture ever abandoned a technology (that had some marginal utility) that was not disrupted and replaced? We abandoned the horse and buggy, but only for the automobile. Some of us abandoned the typewriter, but only for the word processor and PC.
    Assuming that at worse the effects of smartphones and network technology are harmful, but not catastrophic, as the television arguably is, will society ever, en masse, abandon it for Nokias, Light Phones, and print newspapers?
    The ony real example of a new, marginally useful technology that has been “abandoned” is, as Cal mentions, nuclear weapons. But those of course had the “advantage” of carrying the threat of actual global annihalitaiton.
    I’d be curious if anyone has other examples I haven’t considered.

    • I should have been more specific, I meant technologies or products that were functional and widely adopted by consumers that people voluntarily abandoned without a replacement.

      Asbestos, lead, DDT, freon – all these were subject to heavy regulations before disappearing altogether, either due to bans or cost

      Cigarettes – also heavily taxed and actively anti-marketed by government

      Plastic bags – still in wide use, only going away because of regulations

      Car boats – never widely adopted or practical

      Smartphones work. They serve a marginal utility (even if the deep work methodology for evaluation would not advice adopting them for everyday use). I don’t see them being regulated out of existence in the United States anytime soon.

      So my clarified question is whether we as digital minimalists ever be more than a vocal minority, or it there are historical examples of people abandoning a working technology en massé without a “better” substitute and without government intervention.

      • Government is probably necessary for people to totally abandon a technology but that doesn’t mean it’s imposed from without, either; typically there’s at least some element of popular support for a ban.

        I doubt we’ll ever ban smartphones of course. I do think it’s worth noting that we already restrict their use, for example, behind the wheel of a car, so I guess it’s possible we’ll discover other situations in which their use is harmful enough to prohibit outright, or to discourage their use. I think the extent to which we regulate and ban smoking today would have been unthinkable in the 1950s. Not that I think they’re equivalent, just that there’s a variety of middle grounds between banning and unrestricted use.

      • That probably is the whole point – every product, technology or activity that’s useful to the individual right now but harmful to the society in the long term will *NOT* get voluntarily abandoned. It’s a coordination problem similar to the tragedy of commons; it can be only solved with top-down regulation – bans or other restrictions.

        • Agreed. That’s what concerns me. Smart phones, social media, etc. are hijacking weaknesses in our brains that natural selection couldn’t have prepared us for. It could lead to an interesting future where the “elites” are those who DON’T rely heavily on using the latest technology. Sort of like the economic arguments from Deep Work about how those who cultivate focus are the rare ones today, and thus will be able to command the highest salaries/grab the biggest slice of the pie.

  2. I am 21 and hence dont know the world before television. But I would like to know what were the warnings given by critics on television and how did it change the social fabric (for the worse)?

    • It completely changed post-work social life. People began just watching 5 – 6 hours a day in their own homes, starting around dinner and until bed, watching, at the time, pretty dumb content.

      • Same goes for video games, and to some extent, the web.
        This is why televions and computers got the nickname ‘time swallowers’.

    • I suggest reading a classic called “Amusing ourselves to death” by Neil Postman, a disciple of Marshall McLuhan.

      It is a brilliant book, and it is extremely applicable nowadays, not because of TV, but because of the way it really makes you understand the depth of social and cognitive changes that come from electronic media. In fact I recommend this book to every reader of this blog.

  3. I hope we as a global society will come to the conclusion that social media in its current form isn’t really a useful or harmless technology, and should be changed radically in order to be made more useful, and less harmful (and thereby maybe even more lucrative, to the joy of the shareholders).

    I’d like to believe that no-one who has read enough studies, or seen the recent documentary about what happened with elections and society in recent years thanks to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (“The Great Hack”) can say in good conscience that social media is just a harmless tool.

    It’ll probably take more than studies and documentaries for people to -hopefully- wake up to this and start to see things with a critical eye. But it’s happening.
    I regularly talk to people about smartphones and social media, and recently I’ve heard a lot of “I wish I could just take a break from my phone.” I haven’t lost hope yet for a more critical view of these technologies. I think we need it.

    • My prediction is that social media as we know it — run by a small number of massive monopolies, optimized for addictive over use — will evolve into something that users like better. Perhaps, more smaller platforms, better business models, etc.

      Smartphones themselves will stay around until eventually replaced by AR…

      • Cal, you mention AR – do you foresee it being even more problematic than smartphones given it’s literally on your face? This is one of the reasons I get where Elliott above is coming from – smartphones aren’t the real problem, as you yourself have mentioned a few times when referring to Steve Jobs’ original vision for them: social media is.

        You’ve played a huge role in raising awareness about it via Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. But now, it’s onto step 2. Regulation, market forces, and cultural forces need to (gradually but sooner rather than later) shift to incentivize business models & app design that promote human flourishing and minimize the low-grade misery that they currently conjure.

  4. What did people do before smartphones and video games? How about a roll in the hay? It happens less and less: Both men and women are having less sex than previous generations. I can’t remember where I read it or the exact stat, but something like 1 in 5 twenty somethings had NO sex in the last year. The testosterone levels of young men are also drastically lower today than they were for young men in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

    Obviously the causes of these trends are complex, but it’d be interesting to see someone study if smartphone use decreases sex drive.

  5. Hi, maybe this is a silly question but why are smartphones and social media grouped?

    I mean they are a lot more to smartphones that social media apps, they changed how we do things in the same way a personal computer did.

    Sorry, maybe you’re not referring to this at all but I would like to know.

    • The ability of social media to be with you 24/7 in your pocket, everywhere you go, *because* of the smartphone, revolutionized it. Social media that’s easily accessible at any minute of the day, is *much* more addicting than if I have to go home and turn on my home computer before I can visit Facebook.

      • Man, those were the days – when I had to physically go to the computer lab on my college campus to log on to Facebook. Happened at most once a day, but more like once every three days. It’s amazing how little I thought about Facebook in those days!

  6. After listening to your interview on 10% happier I changed my screen time limits on my phone to be much more aggressive (5 minutes on most distracting apps) and started using focus mode all the time which adds a little bit of friction if I want to use these apps. I’ve found myself much more relaxed and I’ve not missed using them at all. Looking forward to reading the book

  7. What other current tech falls into the “too soon to tell” category? CRISPR? Self-driving cars? Lab-grown meat?
    I read a quote recently bemoaning the time-wasting pursuit of chess, from the 19th century! Kids these days.
    We can all agree, though, that Dippin Dots is (are?) truly the ice cream of the future.

    • CRISPR is less about the utility of the technology itself, but its application.

      With improved understanding of genetics, the utility of this tech is likely to improve.

      And there are ethical considerations when it comes to the editing of human genomes (particularly in utero) that require important discussions.

      But there’s an obvious sense in which CRISPR, and even self-driving cars have some apparent benefit. For social media, any potential benefits are not nearly so obvious.

      If Social Media has any ability to dramatically improve our lives in some unique way, I think we’re yet to see it.

      The issue with social media is that:

      – the ramifications seems quite obvious to many (especially those disenchanted addicts who are deeply feeling the effects)
      – despite the success of digital minimalism, the world is still virtually indifferent to the potentially negative effects

  8. I think some of this also reflects on how you define the question of what is and isn’t harmful – to the individual and to the societal group at large. This post reminded me again of one of my favourite of Cal’s old posts about how the Amish chose which technologies to adopt and how that thinking can be adapted to digital minimalism:-

    That article referred to the prohibition of use of automobiles at the turn of the century by many Amish groups because the benefit of the technology (ease of mobility) was viewed as outweighed by the harmful impact on the community by dispersing energy and reduced interaction within the local group.

  9. I’d say that humans have always been reluctant to change. Anything new tossed at us is rejected at first. It’s only when we are open to new ideas of every kind, we can explore the new changes and form an opinion about whether we like it or not. However, it is easier said than done. But there is always an underlying possibility of accepting new things rather than rejecting them due to being prejudiced.

  10. As a person who used social media previously, I really have learned to move in a new direction after wasting more than 3 years on FB and Twitter. I realized that the classmates from High School and I were definitely not moving in the same direction. I am a Veteran who now is completing a Masters Degree, and starting a new healthcare company, and I have eliminated all time wasters during the week. Social media is a Rabbit hole that I refuse to ever visit again, and it also was a place that left me depressed sometimes as I looked at how it left so many of my friends with marginal lives because of the continual need for approval, and associations on various social media platforms. Your book “Deep Work” really made me feel bad because it reminded me of my poor habits when I was on social media. Great article!

  11. I think “Deep Work” has helped me a great deal, and I am on the last chapter of Digital Minimalism it is clearly the most practical approach to using your time more efficiently! Great article!

  12. I used to get a lot of criticism for spending my teen years in front of a computer. 1997-2005. Back then, you had to actually BE on the internet, instead of the internet always being with you. Not sure that was much better. I used to try to break my ‘online time’ record..Once, I spent 12 hours in front of my computer.

    I don’t know if I regret it, because I think the alternative would have been me sitting alone in front of a TV, like the loner children from the 80s. I just happened to be born in a specific time period where the internet was still on PCs and smart phones didn’t exist. There was a lot of chatting. Not much else. We didn’t even have digital cameras until 2000 or so!

    I always wonder if I should’ve listened to everyone and got off the computer, or if everything turned out fine. I have no clue. I need a few more decades to think it over.

  13. Great article! Especially pointing out the flaw in the logic that new technologies typically end up harmless. I think with smartphones and social media, we are already seeing their harmful effects. The warnings that critics have about them are already our reality. What we have to decide is does the bit of usefulness we find in them outweigh the harmful effects?


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