Is there a way to give an account of phone gluttony? I have long thought we Catholics don’t pay nearly enough time to thinking through the moral importance of technology use, despite the clear injunctions in Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals warning of the dangers of “superdevelopment,” and the rapid multiplication of “needs” in wealthy societies. Technologies very powerfully shape both habits and relationships – the basic “ways” we are “in the world.” The existence of television may be the most overwhelming cultural fact – and perhaps the most influential – of the last 50 years. Television not only makes possible various forms of mass culture – and mass advertising – but also involves a particular posture and set of habits. For those who would claim this issue is trivial, simply looking at time-study data reveals the continuing importance of television as an activity: 3-4 hours a day on average, dwarfing any other non-work category. And a stroll through my neighborhood – or any neighborhood – at night will illustrate this. Indeed, a recent NY Times article on “cutting the (cable TV) cord” was not about there being nothing worth watching, but rather about how all the “right” shows were now becoming available through other means. Consuming what amounts to TV is as strong as ever. As a single person without TV, and without any antenna access other than the local PBS station, I get what TV does.
But the device that seems to me ready to supplant this pattern is the smart phone. And so I think we have a sense of what “TV gluttony” might be – indeed, parents routinely worry about kids watching “too much TV.” But what about too much phone? The obvious issue here is that (unlike TV!) the phone can be there almost all the time. Indeed, non-phone places (like the airplane on which I’m typing this) are desperately wanting to become phone places – because all places should be phone places, right? No doubt the supposed “driverless future” will be of great service, because people will be able to watch TV and use their phone while driving.
The ubiquity of phone use can be seen often enough, but two examples really made me notice this. Watching the final season of Sex and the City – set in 2004 – is to watch what is still the age of the flip phone. Even wealthy, elite New Yorkers do not have smart phones – and so they do have all sorts of experiences and plots that are now completely blown up because of smart phones. The other example is spending lots of my sabbatical days working in a library at an undergrad college (not my own) – and day after day, seeing that hardly a student can be found who does not have that smart phone sitting there, next to screen or notebook or book, with the eyes roaming over to it every few minutes (or few seconds). (I am happy to say that on a visit to my alma mater, I was pleased to be in the Libe and observe very few students with smartphones out! Perhaps this could be a new category in the U.S. News rankings?)
The first example makes me sad – it’s why I still love going to cities and just exploring them. Instead of having my smart phone tell me what to do. But the second example concerns me, because it is obvious that it is not possible for real study to be going on (for 18-22 year-olds, especially) with the smart phone sitting there. I know – it is hard enough for me to work when I am one click away from the blogosphere; but for many smartphone users, increasingly there is no off. Driving, working, playing with kids (oh, yes), in meetings (something that administrators seem to believe is simply necessary) – the smart phone must always be available, because… why? This is like the trend for TV’s to be everywhere, but far worse, because eventually you can tune out TV’s at airports and the gym.
What makes for phone gluttony? And why? We need an account of this. Before people start walking up to communion while furtively glancing downward.
Gluttony, at its root, involves a proper relationship between appetite and function, a way of subordinating (though not rejecting) pleasure to the natural ends of eating. The habits formed require some understanding of two things, it seems to me: one, of what appropriate nutritional requirements are, and two, of the proper and improper occasions and rhythms of eating. Or, to put shortly, the right amount, and the right times. How might we apply this to smart phones? “The right times,” I think, is particularly important to consider. It strikes me that one of our problems with obesity, besides our diet, is that we think regular mealtimes are irrelevant and should be ignored. Eat whenever works for you. For what I understand in the literature, this is a mistake, and it is certainly a SOCIAL mistake – because it makes common scheduling and common dining so difficult. So, why can’t there be appropriate and inappropriate times for smart phone usage? What would those times be? It seems clear that times when a regular cell phone is convenient, smart phones are also convenient. But wouldn’t the normal, default state be… “off” or “away”? When I started teaching in 2001, I had to remind people to turn off their phones… and people would walk around the campus talking on their phones. In a sense, this not only looked annoying, but it limited usage. You simply couldn’t be chattering away on your cell in many cases. Now, everything is different.
And it’s different because ultimately we haven’t gotten clear on the question of what smart phones are for. Perpetual smart phone use seems to me to be due to two things: one, the possibility of being constantly entertained, and two, the ubiquity of online conversations, where “being present” is needed to carry on the conversation. Sure, in the old BlackBerry age, I had a friend who is a high-powered administrator of several schools, and who is a very efficient worker, and what Blackberry made possible was getting through email in “gaps” and taking notes on the fly. Work-related. But this is not what accounts for the ubiquity of smart phones.
So, in some sense, the “nutritional value” of smart phones – and thus “the right amount” really goes back to two other questions: what is the nature of the community or conversation that can be carried on in this way? And what value is there is “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman’s book put it? I have yet to understand fully what is generative and what is “weird” about facebook, the central node of online community.
My own sense is that, in light of these two questions, the “prudence” of smart phone use would be in subordinating the communication and the entertainment tasks to their proper place in the larger outline of one’s life. That is, the smartphone needs to facilitate reality as an accessory, rather than be the reality. The same could be said for television, or any form of popular culture. Smartphones are a means; how are we ordering the ends to which they are means?