Phones are a kind of silent — or not so silent — alarm, ever ringing out a warped siren that we are the center of the universe.
In the recent Op-Ed, “Less phone, more connection,” the author references a Stephen King quote which reads, “In the twenty-first century, I think our phones are how we are wedded to the world. If so, it’s probably a bad marriage.” And, like the author, I agree. But I think this sentiment — that we are wedded to our phones and that it’s a bad marriage — is only getting at one symptom of a much deeper, more devastating disease which is both more difficult to diagnose and more elusive to treat than an over-attachment to screens.
In the twenty-first century, I think our phones are an extension of our weddedness to ourselves. If so, it’s definitely a bad marriage.
Phones, which provide access to virtually anything or anyone, which flood our senses with constant notifications, be it work or school emails, text messages, reminders, social media notifications or however your phone is customized to you, tell us that the world, and everyone in it, is at our fingertips.
While some of our screen time may be devoted to texting or calling, much of it consists of mindless scrolling, researching random topics of interest, or being productive by keeping up with work or school-related goings-on — some of which can be useful, helpful and even productive. I think we would be hard-pressed, however, to make a convincing case that phones constitute connection. Yet if we stop there, and say that we need to simply look at our phones less, use them as tools with intention, and look around us more, we will miss the point — what’s at the root of our obsession with our phones and our seeming inability to truly connect with others.
Looking up from our phones and at those around us, though possibly purging us of a symptom of our inability to connect, will not cure us of the root cause of our disconnection, nor will it equip us with the tools necessary to bridge the gaping chasm between ourselves and those we are surprised to find on our right and on our left.
I recently listened to David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College titled “This Is Water.” In the address, Wallace paints a bleak picture of life post-graduation. He describes an average day in the life, which may include the following: getting up early, going to work, reaching the end of a long and probably stressful day, and planning to go home, make a quick dinner and go to bed early, only to remember that you haven’t gone grocery shopping this week, have no food at home and need to trek to the grocery store after your long and stressful day.
He proceeds, with painstaking detail, to describe how tediously aggravating the simple act of going to the grocery store after a long, albeit average, day might be — people cutting you off on your drive, fellow shoppers talking loudly on the phone in the middle of the grocery store, there being too few check-out lines open for too many people, etc.
He goes on to say that this way of viewing the world “is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
The crux of this automatic, unthinking mode of operation isn’t an overattachment to a phone — it’s an egocentricity which assumes, and demands, as Wallace confesses, that “my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
Wallace goes on, however, to pitch an alternative to this default mode of operating, and forewarns that this alternative is by far the more difficult, far-from-automatic option. You could consider that the person who cut you off is racing to get their critically injured child to the hospital, and that you, in fact, are in their way, or that everyone else shuffling through the grocery store is just as tired and frustrated as you are, though very probably live less privileged, far more painful lives than you do.
And while Wallace acknowledges in no uncertain terms that this is not automatic, that this is the less natural, tediously effortful, will-commanding option, he also creates a compelling case for this being the more radically alive, conducive-to-connection one.
We don’t need to go through such painstaking effort.
We can continue on in our self-obsession, simultaneously missing those around us and blaming them for our dissatisfaction. But, as David Foster Wallace continues, “if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
You can try to treat your sense of disconnection from others by tempering your screen time, or give up altogether on this seemingly mystical quest for connection.
Or, if you want to, you could pay attention. You could see that there’s another option. You could ditch the automatic, distorted lens that affirms that your needs, desires and preferences ought to govern the universe, and try the lens that does not deny your individuality but gets you beyond yourself, opening your eyes to the worlds of those around you.
This is what we need to consider if our aim is more connection. Not treating the symptom of Distraction by iPhone, but the root issue of Blindness by Self-Absorption. If we think the issue is merely our attachment to our phones and not our attachment to ourselves and our self-centered worldviews, we will continue to fail to see and connect with those around us.
More pressingly than an amicable divorce from our phones, the problem of connection calls for a not-so-amicable divorce from the illusion that the world revolves around us. That this life, and our fellow human beings, are at our disposal. Because if we only eliminate our attachment to phones, just one symptom of our egocentricity, we will still be in our own way of seeing — and connecting with — one another clearly.