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How to Live More Wisely Around Our Phones

The dark truth is that it’s become very hard to find anyone (and certainly anything) more interesting than one’s smartphone. This perplexing and troubling realisation has for most of us had huge consequences for our love stories, family lives, work, leisure time and health. There is almost no relationship in which the presence of the phone has not had a profound impact. The genuine beauty and interest of our phones wouldn’t be a matter of such concern if we didn’t suspect, somewhere in our minds, that this machine has both opened some doors and is in danger of grievously closing others. This essay knows we love our phones and would never want us to give them up, but it is also gently aware that these delightful gadgets bear a hidden cost. This is a text that aims to bring a little sanity to our closest, most intense and possibly most danger-laden technological relationship.

1. Addiction

We might not be injecting illegal substances or dousing ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all drug addicts of one kind or another. Addiction is (in essence) dependence on a substance that keeps our real hopes and fears at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.

To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.

We are addicted to our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we recruit them to a harmful project of self-avoidance. They do not mean to hurt us. But we may – and probably do – use them to injure ourselves. Addiction sounds horrible. But it is a hard name for a normal inclination: a habit of running away from the joys and terrors of self-knowledge.

2. Monasticism

For centuries, Christian monks and nuns built remote, austere (and often very beautiful) places to live, frequently constructed round quiet arcades with tranquil gardens at their core. They went to such trouble because above all else, they were concerned about one thing: distraction. They were acutely aware of our native inability to get the best out of our minds: they understood how vague and jumpy our thoughts can be. And they took the problem of disturbance with utmost seriousness. They so wanted to concentrate on what was important to them, they took immense care to wall-off instantly alluring (but often frankly worthless) distractions offered  by the wider and wilder world.

Their efforts are moving because – as we painfully realise – they were right. Our minds are by nature like mad monkeys, restlessly flitting from one fleeting diversion to another, while all the things we really care about get neglected. But tragically our society and culture does not build us cloisters: it places in our hands ever-open conduits to everything that could possibly divert our minds: real estate, porn, the news, social chit-chat, strident opinion, games, special offers, puzzles, the twelve best hotels somewhere, the weirdest doings of the weirdest strangers and the intimate lives of every celebrity on the planet. We are almost powerless to resist because so many clever, hard working people are devoting their lives to making money by capturing, if only for a few seconds, the most precious thing we possess: the focus of our minds – and our time. Even without the slightest feeling of religious conviction, we might pine for the cloister.

3. The Digital Sabbath

In the Ten Commandments, we are told that God ordered the Israelites to do no work on the Sabbath (that is, the seventh) Day. It wasn’t out of dislike of work. They were fully expected to toil away for the previous six days. Rather, it was a notion of the deep utility of rest that was being advocated. The injunction stems from a deeply wise view of human nature. We regularly need to stop – even when something is otherwise valuable to accomplish. And it helps if we are told to stop in a rather authoritative way, perhaps by someone in the sky with a beard. The concept of a digital Sabbath isn’t Luddite in spirit; it’s not denying that technology brings us enormous advantages or is dazzling in its accomplishments. It’s recognising that we are over-obedient to our machines. We’re too compliant by nature and therefore need to be reminded – with the utmost authority – that we must at points take a break.

The problem is that the gods have died. The great authorities of the modern world are the voices of corporate interests; they don’t necessarily have our best needs at the front of their minds. We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves. And we need to do this on a regular basis, perhaps one day a week, as the tribes of Israel cleverly realised a long time ago. We might designate every Saturday as the occasion when – for a while – we mute the tyrannical machine.

4. Look Things Up Inside Yourself

We can look up so much on our phones: we can (if we are inclined) check up the population of Lima (8.473 million); who won the Ladies Final at Wimbledon in 1997 (Martina Hingis); the definition of ‘tautology’ (saying the same thing twice, though in different ways) or perhaps the author of that fascinating quote ‘What you survive makes you stronger’ (Nietzsche). Yet this constant resource has an unwitting, unfortunate side-effect. We consult our phones, rather than ourselves.

It’s not that we actually know so many obscure facts. But we already possess – in scattered, unpolished forms – the raw material from which a huge number of the very best insights and ideas could be formed: if only we gave them enough time and attention. We already have immense experience – but it is not yet fully articulate; its lessons have not been formulated; the conclusions haven’t been extracted.

Often it’s not more information we need but more ambitious use of the information we already possess. What makes for a genuinely enjoyable holiday? What, really, do I love about tennis? What do I need and want to say to my friends? The only instrument to use is our own brain. And there is, perhaps, only one quote we truly need to look up: ‘In the minds of geniuses we discover our own neglected thoughts’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

5. Our Phones and Our Relationships

In principle, we love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.

Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.

It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their theory of ideal fridge management. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with information about the most expensive apartment currently on sale in Manhattan or the diet of Mymains Stewart Gilligan (the largest pet cat in the world). Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.

6. Dating

We can, it seems, hook up so easily. There are millions of people out there. It shouldn’t be hard to find the right one – if only we sign up to the right site. We become monsters of our hopes: any person we have met is judged against those we haven’t ever met. We are unforgiving towards those we know because of the vast reserves of surely ideal companions and partners currently separated from us only by a click or two.

Of course, none of the people we do meet through our phones is in fact ever quite right. So we go back to the search and redouble our efforts. The treasure-mate must be there, if only we look for long enough.

We never do find them though – and for a tragic reason that our phones will not as yet own up to. Everyone out there is radically imperfect. The task of love can’t be to locate some mythical ‘right person’. Compatibility is an achievement of love, it can’t be its precondition. We’ll have learnt how to form relationships only when we surrender our attachment to perfection and learn instead to tolerate and see the point of the trickier aspects of everyone we could ever meet.

This is a truth that our phone, as yet, doesn’t want to teach us. It promises to locate someone who likes eating cheese, wants to wear a rubber mask and lives within a ten mile radius of Sevenoaks. But it cannot, as yet, help us with the real challenge of love: which is to extend sympathy and understanding to human frailty.

©Flickr/L’oeil étranger

7. Porn vs Real Life

A love of porn is deeply understandable and our phones know it. The business of living is so desperately hard, relationships are so challenging, work often so unfulfilling or boring, family dynamics so tricky and the capacity for honest, kindly conversation so restricted, we may through no particular fault of our own end up extremely vulnerable to the sudden intense highs offered by sexting sessions or short films about lesbians trying anal or muscled hunks whipping each other. Porn doesn’t judge, it doesn’t criticise you for being fascinated by threesomes or the idea of kinky librarians. Instead of saying: you are revolting and disgusting, a porn site is welcoming and compassionate. It’s offering online something we might ideally wish to get from another person: acceptance of the curious ways our libido happens to work.

Closeness to a real life partner bring with it so many complications that militate against excitement. There’s a backlog of unresolved resentments; there a daily need to put up with a person’s less reasonable sides or to be apologetic for one’s own failings; there’s the pressure to be moderately respectable and civilized.

All of these are dampers on sexual exploration – and they fall away around porn. The porn site doesn’t care if you didn’t take the rubbish out or chewed a bit loudly; it doesn’t mind that you slammed the cupboard door or gave a monosyllabic answer when asked how your days was; it doesn’t want to go into detail about why you didn’t ring your mother on her birthday or take you up on your attitude to credit card debt. Porn in effect says: we don’t mind about anything else in your life – just concentrate on this for a bit. Porn can be – therefore – a huge relief from the burdensome complications of intimacy. It usefully – and blissfully – removes sex from the emotional landscape of our real relationships. Which is both an immense benefit – and a terrible hidden cost.

8. Nature and the Sublime

Almost since the beginning of time, we have prized the opportunity to get away from reminders of humanity and to immerse ourselves in nature. We have wanted to gaze on the grey indifference of the ocean or the bright, incalculable, immensity of the starry sky. We have loved to stand below towering cliffs or encounter in the flesh a tree that was planted when bison still roamed the plains. We long for the strange ennoblement – and emotional relief – that comes from recognising our own astonishing littleness in the infinite spaces of nature. These grand settings bring with them a profoundly consoling diminution of our cares: if we are so minor in the bigger scheme, so too must be our worries.

Our phones are the enemies of such experiences. They keep intruding our small selves into the picture. We may be on the edge of the Grand Canyon; they are beeping in our back pockets. We may be gazing at the southern slopes of the Matterhorn; they are receiving updates for a food delivery app back home. They ask us never to forget our ego – and the endless things that ail us. Without meaning to, they strip away the help the grandeur of nature offers.  

Instead of losing ourselves, we simply keep asserting our demands and appetites. We record rather than retire the needy, insatiable self. And as we post the images of the perfect sunset over the distant hills, or the clear water of the little stream in the woods, we are forgetting (as we update) what they – quietly and with great and tender majesty – might really have been trying to say to us.

9. Stimulation vs Calm

For reasons connected up with our own evolution as a species – reasons which have become tragic in the modern world – our brains crave stimulation. Once we were responding energetically to vital and serious signals from the environment about the prospect of eating a berry or of getting bitten by a snake; now, in the age of fridges and zoos we respond with equal (though deeply misplaced) urgency to anything that can prick our hyper-active fancy, however remote true sustenance or real danger may be.

We jump up at the slightest command. We’re ever alert to new information – even when it’s far from being connected up with anything that truly counts.

Our most urgent need is for something that for millennia was of little concern to us: calm. We react to stimuli even when we’re exhausted, worn down, over-agitated and frantic. And our phones have to accept a degree of blame – because they are the endless carriers of claims to rouse us, when what we really need is exactly the opposite: to be helped to be more serene and at peace.

We’ve not asked our suppliers for the right things. They think we want news about the worst train crash or terrorist incident that happened somewhere in the world right now. That would certainly be new; it might not be important. Maybe what we really need are the most tranquil landscapes, information about the uneventful doings of people in 15th century Provence or Siena or images of the most distant, remote and indifferent moons of Jupiter.

10. Shopping


Abraham Maslow, The Pyramid of Needs

In our hands we hold access to (or at least information about) every product in the known universe. If we wake in the middle of the night and check our phones, we will probably be greeted by an offer from a shoe company, a supplier of flat-pack furniture or a maker of strangely expensive watches.

Nevertheless, the weird truth is that we’re still rather bad at shopping. Not in the obvious sense that we miss a bargain or pay too much for a toaster or a pair of sandals. But rather that our purchasing ambitions are focused only at the lower level of our own pyramid of needs.

Our phone doesn’t know (and therefore cannot help us with) how much we’d rather have a true friend than a cut-price chicken or find a solution to a long running relationship row rather than get a discount on our car insurance. As we struggle up the pyramid of needs, the bargains we need to strike, the commitments we need to make, the things we most require in (or out of) our lives pass over the heads of our sleek and perfectly styled – but ultimately impoverished – phones.  

We are still waiting for phones that will help us properly address the greatest struggles of our lives, the ones at the summit of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid.

11. Beyond Instagram

In the late 19th century, when photography was well-established, the English art critic and social reformer John Ruskin started getting obsessed with the laborious, inaccurate process of drawing. He wanted people to stop taking so many pictures and start using a pencil, watercolour and the evidence of their own eyes. He wasn’t against photos just because they were new. He’d recognised a grim, unexpected downside to the amazing capacity to instantly make accurate images of practically anything.

You can take a photo of a leaf (or your lover’s face or the house you lived in when you were five or a glacier cascading into the sea) but that doesn’t mean you’ve taken possession of this thing in your soul. It’s only when we ask ourselves the detailed questions – is that side of the leaf darker or lighter than the other, how exactly does the stem join the twig, how many points are there in fact round the top portion? – that we start to notice the details and fix them in our minds.

We need to make ourselves pay attention. And ironically – tragically – the ease with which we can create an image works against our very desire properly to notice anything.

We may have to resort to a cruder mechanism to do a subtler thing: discover what something means to us.

We may need, at points, to put the phone down and sketch.

12. Appreciation

Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:

  • The curious delicacy of a friend’s wrist
  • The soothing sound of traffic in the distance
  • Moss on an old stone wall
  • The pleasure of feeling tired after working hard
  • The excitement of getting up very early on a summer’s morning, in order to have an hour entirely to oneself.
  • A bank of clouds gradually drifting across the sky
  • The texture and smell and colour of a ripe fig
  • The shy hesitancy of someone’s smile
  • How nice it is to read in the bath
  • The comfort of an old jumper (with holes under the armpits)

They are all waiting for a little attention.

13. Poetry

We have learned to link brevity to vacuity. Serious ideas, we suppose, must be transmitted in long and challenging texts. Twitter is as far as one can get from great works like Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Plato’s Republic.

Yet this is an educated delusion. You can conjure the deepest, sweetest and saddest truths in a few words.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

[192 characters, tweeted by William Shakespeare, c.1606]

Drink to me only with thine eyes,

    And I will pledge with mine;

Or leave a kiss within the cup,

    And I’ll not ask for wine.

[128 characters, tweeted by Ben Jonson 1616]

What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.

[79 characters, tweeted by Seneca 1st century AD]

The only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well

[79 characters, tweeted 10 Aug 2012]

Poetry is the smart name for an eternal, central task: to sum up a lessons of experience as briefly and memorably as possible.

We shouldn’t take against brevity out of snobbery. We should just make sure we’re using brief media to say the really big and important things.

14. News

Keeping up with the news sounds like one of the most serious of rationales for our devotion to our phones. We’re not being rude or frivolous: we’re tracking world events. Yet we are curiously unselective about what properly counts as ‘news’. News isn’t merely something that’s happened: there’s a crucial, implied (yet easily ignored) addendum; it happened and we need to know about it.

A lot of what happened is in fact entirely irrelevant to what we are trying to do on earth. Our modern idea of ‘news’ is falsely and also dangerously flattering. It imagines that all of us need to know everything that happened in the last day or hour anywhere in the world.

But in reality, from a personal point of view, (which is the one that counts) the really important news is just everything that is crucial for us to take note of in order to understand our own world and our place in it – even though these priorities might not seem important in a global context.

The real news for us today might be that we should probably give our mother a ring.

15. Fear Of Missing Out

Thanks to our phone we’re more exposed than ever to the alluring things others do: ‘there was this great bar we all went to …’; ‘she’s getting married in a little country church…’; ‘the sun is glinting on Sydney Harbour…’;  the top after-party … amazing views … chic Brooklyn bar that locals love…’

There is so much we’re not doing, not invited to, not part of. Our own lives, it naturally seems, are filled with the Fear Of Missing Out. We suffer the agonies of FOMO.

It’s tempting to get a bit cynical. Maybe the hyped things are not all they’re cracked up to be? Maybe everything is a bit rubbish?

It’s more nuanced than this: we do indeed risk missing out. But there is a rather different list of things we might not get round to enjoying than the one our phones want us to focus on: getting to truly know our parents, learning to cope well with being alone; appreciating the consoling power of trees and clouds; discovering what our favourite pieces of music really mean to a friend, chatting to a seven year old child…

It’s not the notion of missing out that is the problem. It’s our ideas of what we might be missing out on that counts – and that our phones unhelpfully skew.

16. The Dream of Being ‘Liked’

It can feel desperately naive or narcissistic to admit it – but we really like being ‘liked’, we are genuinely moved by a message letting us know that Matteo from Wisconsin or Emile from Livorno wants to be our friend. These little words ‘like’ and ‘friend’ set off such deep and tender longings in our souls: warm, sympathetic, intelligent approval; the promise of gentle, heartfelt understanding. We’re eager to find out more. And we’re almost always disappointed. They are probably very nice people but they are not really offering the kind of kindness and closeness our imaginations had quickly and beautifully sketched.

For all their brevity, ‘liking’ and ‘friendship’ speak right to the heart of who we are. We are lonely creatures – though we might know plenty of interesting people. But others never quite know us exactly as we’d wish to be known. The most elusive – that is the darkest, most complex and most lovely – parts of who we are remain isolated.

Our momentary excitement when we get a message isn’t shameful or ridiculous. It’s a widely shared, yet secret, pang of hope: that our inner solitude will be pierced, that our troubles and joys will be truly understood by another; and that all the messages we wish to send to the world would be received and perfectly understood, at least by someone.

We should not be frightened or discomfited by our pervasive loneliness. At an exasperated moment, near the end of his life, the German writer Goethe, who appeared to have had a lot of friends, exploded bitterly: ‘No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.’

It was a helpful outburst from such a great man. It isn’t our fault: a degree of distance and mutual incomprehension isn’t a sign that life has gone wrong. It’s what we should expect from the very start.

In any case, loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.

17. Travel

Our phones seem like the most useful holiday assistants: they’ll show us how to get to the Duomo from the pensione or locate the fashionable but inexpensive bistro; they’ll book the taxi ride. They can record – and reveal to others – the defective bathroom tiles in the rented villa or let everyone we know share our surprise at the actual appearance of the dish of green papaya with sliced pig’s ear we ordered at Quan An Ngon in Ho Chi Minh City,

But as yet our phones are skimming the surface of our travel needs. They don’t really know who we are and what we care about, because we’re not as yet able to confess to them – in any productive way – the secrets of our hearts. And they can’t as yet help us to tell those we love (but who weren’t there) what it was really like for us.

Half-formed thoughts are circulating on our minds as we catch site of the Pyramids or walk through the doors of Harrods for the first time. But while our phones can record the moment they can’t – as yet – bring our submerged reactions to the surface. They can tell us what time the museum opens but not why we – uniquely, we – should go there.

18. Playing

You can play on your own – all too easily. On the screen, it’s entrancing, fast, continuous and you are effortlessly moved from one stage to the next.

But ‘playing’, that is, being silly and having fun, with other people is different: a child’s raucous glee when things turn their way; the unexpected intensity of fooling around with a normally staid and measured acquaintance; the pleasure of losing at snap to a shy five-year old; the constructive oddity of seeing someone you are normally a bit intimidated by tumbling on the grass after a successful tackle; the unexpected, but deeply welcome, intimacy of being on the same side in a water-pistol fight with the brother-in-law you’d like to know better.

When we play around with others, we are safely revealing less obvious, but very real, parts of who we are. Our mature, carefully composed work-selves are irrelevant as we inflate the paddling pool; it doesn’t matter how the stock-market is doing while we happily loose at chequers to an elderly neighbour (with a surprisingly inventive storehouse of swear words); or as we see the smile (familiar from childhood) appear again in the older face of our mother as she turns down her winning poker hand.

And all the time, as we play for real, we’ve forgotten to check our phones.

19. Selfies

The problem with selfies is not that we take them, but that we don’t take them seriously enough. We tend to feel the need to be a touch ironic: ‘Here I am eating a sausage!’ ‘Look at me with this cute hat!’  Yet selfies are not inherently silly or self-regarding. They sit in one of the grand traditions of high art: the self-portrait. Although he was hampered by having to use oil paint and brushes, Rembrandt was addicted to making images of himself (more than one hundred across his long career). But he never showed himself winking or making funny hand gestures.

Instead he was looking closely at who he was and what he had become: contemplating the sadness that gradually accumulated in his own face, trying to work out what he really made of being alive: what has life done to me? What have I done with my time on earth? He wasn’t seeking the approval of others, he was seeking self-knowledge.

When something (like taking selfies) seems a little trivial or silly, it’s tempting to think we should take it less seriously; we should distance ourselves from it and see it in a mocking light. But the wiser move might be to get much more ambitious. The art of a selfie may have a long way to go yet.

20. Communication

The quaint (but oddly magnificent) word ‘telephone’ is built around an intensely poignant notion: communication at a distance. It holds out a promise: that one’s solitary voice, sent out into the ether, can find a receptive, sympathetic ear. The phone massively multiplies our opportunities for contact, but doesn’t itself make it easier to say what we need to or to get others to properly comprehend what it is we are really trying to tell them.

Technology annihilates physical but not psychological, distance. One’s words effortlessly bounce off a satellite then stall when they reach the brain of the person we most hope will receive them with full understanding.

Our technology is still so primitive. Our words move infinitely faster than a carrier pigeon or a scroll bearing slave but we are as yet no better at explaining ourselves than we were in early history.

There should, and will one day be, another technology that assists us in putting into words our secret sorrows and tentative hopes in such a way that they can properly be grasped, shared and responded to by others. This tool will intelligently prompt us to formulate more clearly our own concerns and support the skills we need to express ourselves in ways that pierce the defences of others.

The phones of the future will, finally, allow one heart to speak to another.

21. Death

We constantly use our phones to keep track of our appointments. But we are – if we think about it – quite constrained around the things to which we choose to be alerted. There’s the automated reminder of the session with the dentist; the alert to jog our memories that it’s our parent’s anniversary or the text message to let us know we’re due to play a tennis match on Sunday afternoon.

But there are other – very different – appointments we need to keep in mind.

We need reminders to keep appointments with ourselves: we need to spend time with our own worries, to understand them rather than just suffer the anxiety they create.

The grandest (and much the worst) is our final appointment: with death. We don’t know how many days we have left to count down. But what we need reminding of is not the day and the hour but the fact. Ideally we’d get a message every morning: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. Remember you are made of dust and and will be dust again.

Brevity, sadly, is the key to appreciation. It is when we remember death that we understand properly the urgency of making the best use of the days that remain.

22. Utopia

Our phones seem amazingly sophisticated: small miracles of compressed, practical science, working hand in hand with advanced Capitalism. We think so highly of them because we compare them to the past, rather than to the possibilities of the future. They are so much more advanced than any device we could possess twenty or forty years ago. Yet they are almost unbearably primitive, in comparison with what – ideally – the long future will bring.

We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.

In the Utopia, our phones will be wiser than we are. They will be kind and not merely subservient. They will know how to edge us away from a stupid decision and how to summon up our better natures.

We deserve pity for having been born in such primitive times.  

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