Are You as Smart as Your Phone? 


Find me when the lights go down

Signing in and signing out

Gods descend to take me home

Find me staring at my phone

— "TSLAMP," Andrew VanWyngarden

When I walked into Starbucks Saturday morning, it was stuffed like a vente latte machiato with an extra shot of espresso. Nowhere to sit. So I leaned against the wall and waited for my order. As I looked around, I noticed literally everyone in the place was staring at a phone, a tablet, or a laptop. Even the four people at one table who seemed to be communicating with each other all had their phones in their hand or on the table.

Normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to that fact. It's pretty much the way of the world these days: People are attached to their devices — to the hum of the hive mind. But my consciousness has been raised recently by a book called How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price.

My copy arrived in an Amazon package, a gift from my son, who wrote the song quoted above; "TSLAMP" stands for "Time Spent Looking At My Phone." (Shameless plug: It's on MGMT's new album, Little Dark Age, which is pretty great.) Anyway, he sent me the book, and it's been a revelation.

Price quotes Steve Jobs, who said in 2007, when introducing the iPhone: "Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything." And smartphones have changed everything. They provide our music, texts, weather, email, news, sports, social media, gaming — and even the occasional phone call. Your phone is within reach right now.

But smartphones aren't passive devices; they interrupt us and urge us to seek the tiny gratifications, the payoff of new information, the validation of friends and strangers who "like" or ignore the pieces of our life we submit to the world for approval. They beep, buzz, ding, and ring. They flash alerts across the screen, constantly diverting our attention from the world, from the person we're with. The average American checks their phone 47 times a day. For those between age 18 and 24, that number is 82.

Price documents how smartphones have affected our attention span, literally reshaping our brains to become less capable of focusing for long periods. She notes the differences in reading a print product and reading something on your mobile device: A book has no built-in distractions. The brain has the bandwidth to focus on and absorb what's being read. Try reading, say, a 3,500-word Atlantic article on your iPhone. You have to make a decision every few seconds on whether to ignore an ad or whether to click a related link in the text. If you click either, it's quite possible you'll get sucked into a web wormhole and never return to the original article. Wonder why you can't make yourself finish a book or a long magazine article? Blame your phone. And yourself, for becoming addicted to it.

In our defense, smartphones are designed to mimic the most addictive device ever invented: the slot machine. The magic of the slots is in the intermittent reward. We pull the lever over and over, seeking the buzz that comes from a surprise payoff. Smartphones are identical, constantly tempting us to sample the allure of the "new."

So why make a device that is so distracting and addictive? It's an obvious answer: money. Phones provide a pathway to our wallets — via ads on our social media, apps, and websites — and via the collected information about our browsing habits, our "likes" and interests. Phones keep us connected to those who want to sell us something. All those folks sitting in Starbucks are the product. And so are you.

Price's book may not get you to "break up" with your phone — and indeed, she's not really expecting you to — but just learning how your phone uses you and eats your time and your brain is enough. Knowledge is power. I think this book should be taught to every American school kid around the seventh grade. We need to train ourselves and our children to use smartphones as tools, rather than vice-versa.

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