Tag Archives: identity

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Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid

The solitary self is becoming an unfamiliar place we would rather not visit.

We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse is costing us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness.

A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over a hundred in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even to the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

The new year is a good time to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.

Curating Our Lives

            Jay Leno with his 1906 Stanley Steamer

We have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files. All give us ways to display what we want others to know about us.

Several years ago I wrote a essay wondering if we were done collecting.  At that time it was easy to notice that online music and “the cloud” had replaced music collections that used to line our walls.  The question was then answered in the affirmative, but I’m having second thoughts.  The impulse to convert our passions into materials that elaborate our lives seems deeper than I knew.  Most of us are active curators.  We just don’t think of ourselves with a word used to denote a person who decides what should hang on a gallery’s white walls.  And yet we have our orderly collections, sometimes in real space, and sometimes captured in pixels or digital files.  Collecting has its own internal rewards.  But I’m impressed with how many of us want to show off our passions to others.

This is obvious to any user of Facebook, Instagram or other forms of social media.  Facebook dramatically displays images of ourselves and the things and images we will allow to stand in for us. Selfies in particular can become galleries presenting the self-conscious self. We also use social media to relay pieces of the culture that we want others to like as much as we do. Most of the time a post includes a moment when we at least ask ourselves the central curatorial question: Is this post worth my association with it?

Older forms of personal curating continue as well.  Model railroaders curate their collections with the passion of medievalists working at the Met.  Guitarists rarely have just one instrument; most acquisitions represent a new point on their own learning curve. A lot of of us can’t resist a rare find carefully brought home to gather dust next to others like it. Even a few of us have tattoos forever memorializing moments when exuberance exceeded caution.

You probably live near a town known for its antique emporiums, used book stores and flea markets.  All are ready to sell everything from art-deco ashtrays to old lobby posters promoting films. Those stores are a reminder that while we may be done hunting for the basics of life, we are still eagerly gathering.


Alas, after the original curator of a collection leaves the scene, our collections may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.


Collecting turns out to be an acceptable way to have too much stuff.  Jay Leno has over a hundred rare cars. Retired newsman Jim Lehrer collects old buses. One of my grandmothers had a prominent display of miniature spoons with the names of such exotic places as Salt Lake City and Tulsa.

But collecting can also have a social function of representing something we hold close to our core identity. The stuff that stays around is emblematic of an individual’s enthusiasms: an expression of a personal aesthetic that still has meaning.

And so we reach the communication angle. In some way a collection on display stakes a claim about who we are. It marks crucial antecedents. We use things to be proxies of our unique affinities and aspirations.  I could bore you with the reason a large model Rio Grande Railroad boxcar is my own Renoir.  But it’s enough to note that it sits on a shelf in a ‘man cave,’ ready to be the trigger for a story that is almost never requested.

Alas, like meaning, collections are not easily transferable.  After the original curator of any collection leaves the scene, those carefully chosen pieces may end up packed away in the attics of our still puzzled heirs.