The Virtue of Smartphones

September 3, 2019 § 6 Comments

By Sarah Boon

Back in February of this year, The New York Times “The Shift” section published an article in which the author, Kevin Roose, found that he couldn’t watch full-length movies or have long uninterrupted conversations because he couldn’t stop looking at and playing with his cell phone. This then obviously required that he go through a complex, therapeutic process to redefine his relationship with his device.

He signed up for a 30-day program to eliminate bad phone habits. He put an elastic band around his phone as a tactile reminder of how many times he picked it up in a day. He had to answer three questions before he could unlock it: “What for? Why now? What else?” He locked it in a safe at night (yes, like a gun) and let it charge. He even got into pottery!

His article is another in a long list of the “smartphones are bad for you” trope. And I have to say, I’ve been on that bandwagon for a while now—my husband and I share a smartphone but only use it when one of us is out of the house.

My go-to, prim response has always been: why not read a book instead?

I’ve been praised for reading a book in public, by a woman who startled me out of a book about urban coyotes and scared me a bit with her multicolored tights and 60-year-old dyed purple-white hair, offset by her black leather jacket and knee-high boots. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just nodded and thanked her before she hustled away.

I’m always reading. I read when I’m waiting—for the dentist, the doctor, the knee surgeon—though I’m not so adventurous as my sister, who has read while walking or cycling.

Last fall I had to go to the hospital every morning for a week to get IV treatment for cellulitis, an illness that caused my face to bloat up like a puffer fish and made me almost too exhausted to move. During that time, I managed to finish Penelope Lively’s “Life in the Garden.” It helped take my mind off the treatment: I could hide in my corner chair in the busy ER and immerse myself in a book for an hour while the antibiotics did their work. I only had plants and my garden on my mind.

I read at night, to calm myself down before sleep—when I start reading the same paragraph over again, I know it’s time to turn off the light. I read at the dining room table: each morning, a few pages of Lorraine Harrison’s Latin for Gardeners, a history of early botanists. I recall one particular vignette about botanist David Douglas, who died at the early age of 35 because he had bad eyesight and fell into an animal trap. My favourite part of the story is that his faithful dog sat beside the trap, waiting for his master to emerge.

It’s easy to see reading as a virtue in our smartphone-obsessed world. As author Emma Rathbone has written in The New Yorker, “[before the internet]…you’d walk outside and squint at the sky, just you in your body, not tethered to any network, adrift by yourself in a world of strangers in the sunlight.” Well-known writers like Nicholas Carr, Matthew B. Crawford, and Michael Harris have all talked about the perils of using smartphones, particularly when it comes to thinking clearly. One of my close friends said he felt as though he couldn’t focus on books anymore because of his online time.

But someone reading a book and someone focused on their smartphone are both distanced from the world and from their immediate reality. The difference is that while we know the person with the book is reading, we have no idea what the person on the phone is doing. They might also be reading: an e-book, or the newspaper. They may be doing a crossword or playing Scrabble. Or they may just be playing Candy Crush.

They may even be writing.

Consider Behrouz Boochani, a detained asylum seeker who won the Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia’s biggest literary award, for No Friend But the Mountains, which he wrote one text message at a time from within Australia’s Manus Island offshore detention centre, then sent to an interpreter. “I survived through my artworks, through my journalism work,” he says in an interview.

Or Esmé Weijung Wang who, suffering from chronic Lyme disease and mental illness, wrote a book using her iPhone. She writes, “I often can’t sit upright, which makes using a desktop or laptop exhausting and unsustainable, if not impossible. What I do have is an iPhone, though…I’m currently writing this while lying on my side in bed, tapping the words out with my index finger, because the iPhone 6 is light enough to hold with my other hand.”

Clearly, we can’t automatically assume that reading a book is more virtuous than using a smartphone, as much as I’d like to. Smartphones aren’t the devil but they’re also not the be-all end-all. They’re somewhere in between, in the space where we decide how we incorporate them into our daily lives.

I don’t use a smartphone regularly but I do have a tablet, and I have built a literary life through the people I’ve met online: I read e-copies of book galleys; I do weekly check-ins with my writing buddy on Slack. I chat about books, society, community, and climate change, all via social media.

I’m not going to stop my tablet use, though I try to use it consciously. And I’ll definitely keep reading. In fact, I’ve just bought myself a new shoulder bag so that it’s easier to carry a book along with my keys and wallet. But I think it will also fit a smartphone—should I choose to be distracted by its clarion call.

Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.


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§ 6 Responses to The Virtue of Smartphones

  • When I was still spending time in a high school, students would text friends while walking from class to class, sometimes passing the friend they were texting in the hallway. Any tool can be abused or misused.

  • “The difference is that while we know the person with the book is reading, we have no idea what the person on the phone is doing.” We assume the person using their smartphone is wasting time when, as your great examples show, they may in fact be doing productive, creative things. It might be a generational thing. I’m old enough to remember pre-cell phone days and the frantic search for a book or magazine to read or a notebook to write in while traveling or waiting in doctors’ offices. Now I have my trusty phone to read the news or an ebook or blog posts (as I’m doing right now). As with any device, it’s all in how we use it and how we keep it from using us.

  • J. says:

    I agree with everything you say. Problems arise when the smartphone becomes a tool of coercion, as it does in workplaces where the boss expect you to react within a few hours to a request (” order”) he or she sends you late Sunday evening. After all, doesn’t the smartphone allow you to do some research from wherever you are?

  • I’m 73 and I do own a smart phone, a tablet, 2 or 3 computers. I Enjoyed reading your blog and I agree with it. It does bug me that the younger people seem to be tied to their smart phone and can’t put them away for a decent conversation (at the dinner table even) . I end up asking them to put it away so we can talk. Older people are getting sucked in as well, so don’r get me wrong. My 4 sisters will text me before they call me and my son goes through cell phones like water and changes his number so often that I give up on adding him in my phone. But he is special needs and has a lot of problems a better excuse than most. I’ve become a avid reader since I retired but because of the small house we have I read e-books. Beside they are usually cheaper and transfer from one device to another. So you are absolutely right don’t judge someone just because they are buried in their smart phone. I’ve seen so many new inventions and used a lot of them, I keep asking myself what is next. But my job was in the Vending machine world and in my 44 years at it, I marvel at the progress and the losses of some of the old things I liked. You keep writing as will I and I’ll keep reading your blog George

  • Franca Whyte says:

    Smartphones made things seem so easy and fast in our globe. There are so many things you can actually with your smartphone. This piece you shared here is really accurate. Thumbs up.

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