Shells of Ourselves
A not-so-social commentary
A few months ago I dropped a 70-pound dumbbell on my face.
After fully grasping what had happened, confirming that my jaw wasn’t broken, and imagining the badass scar that would make it look like I got into a fight and definitely not like I dropped a dumbbell on my face, I took a few trips to a nearby trash can to spit out the blood that was accumulating in my mouth.
Around the fourth trip it occurred to me that nobody in the crowded gym had acknowledged what happened. Everyone was doing the same thing they had been doing before: looking at their phones.
This meant one of two things: either nobody noticed what happened because they were looking at their phones, or they noticed and resumed looking at their phones.
This didn’t surprise me. It wasn’t all that different from other common microcosms of our new reality: people walking down the street staring down at their devices, oblivious to their surroundings; couples and friends sitting together at a restaurant, sharing the same space but lost in separate worlds; concerts where all views of the stage are obstructed by little glass screens.
It feels, in these instances, like we are losing our humanity.
When we subtract all the little details, the micro interactions and events that carry so much meaning—subtle glances and smirks, gentle touches, chance encounters that can change the course of a life—what are we left with?
What scares me the most may be that we all seem to agree that this new reality is problematic while implicitly resigning ourselves to its inevitability. The underlying sentiment seems to be: Smartphones, social media, and the like seem to be wreaking havoc on our cognitive and emotional capacities, starving us of authentic connection, stunting the development of our children, and fueling a mental health crisis. But, hey, what can ya do?
I understand that much of the research is inconclusive. We haven’t drawn a clear, causal link between device use or social media and impaired cognition or mental health outcomes. There is no meta-analysis, no single peer-reviewed study, that unequivocally says smartphones are bad.
But the fact that researchers haven’t officially declared a state of academic emergency offers little consolation when I’m talking with a close friend, sharing my gnawing fear about the mental and emotional toll of EMT work, and the conversation is abruptly interrupted by their compulsion to open the Gmail app. It offers little consolation when I find myself unsurprised to learn that we spend roughly 5 hours on our phones each day, or when I hear a story about someone being assaulted while a bunch of bystanders instinctively pull out their phones to film the attack.
It’s not that I’m ignorant of the upside of technology. I still use an iPhone. I have the ability to play Houndmouth’s latest album, get directions to Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park, and look up the best way to wash my couch cushion covers with the touch of my finger. The immediacy of these benefits amazes me. And this is, in many ways, the crux of the issue. Much like alcohol, the benefits are clear and immediate while the true costs will likely take a long time to surface. We’re increasingly mesmerized by the former and apathetic toward the latter.
It’s these long-term effects that I wonder about. As our attention and awareness continues to decay, as the art of conversation becomes diluted by vibrations and notifications and we instead gravitate toward virtual echo chambers, as the next generation grows up socializing through a screen—what does our world look like after a few more years? A few more decades? Are we comfortable waiting around to find out?
It scares me. It scares me when my phone vibrates while I’m talking with someone I care about and my skin starts to crawl if I don’t immediately reach for it. It scares me when I wake up in the morning and have an immediate impulse to check my messages. It scares me when I find myself reading the same paragraph in a book five times, unable to concentrate.
It scares me when I think about losing my own humanity.
Once the bleeding subsided enough that I could drive home, I put the dumbbell back on the rack, packed up my gym bag, and headed out the door—that is, once the person who had stopped in front of it to look at their phone moved.
My face turned out to be mostly fine. I had a deep cut on my chin and had bitten pretty hard into my lip, but there wasn’t any major damage. That haunting feeling stuck with me, though. The feeling that, despite all of the faces and bodies around me, I was completely alone in that gym.
I’ve tried to add some friction to my relationship with my phone. I’ve set the display to grayscale, removing the pretty, attention-grabbing colors. I’ve moved most of my apps into folders or hidden them entirely. I now charge the phone outside of my bedroom every night.
Has any of this helped? Honestly, not really. I still feel that same magnetic pull toward the screen, and my grayscale display hasn’t yet inspired all the couples eating at the diner by my apartment to start paying attention to each other. These tactics are feeble attempts at treating symptoms of the problem, not causes.
And yet, despite this dreary state of affairs, I remain optimistic.
Our species seems to have a remarkable capacity for self-correction. We screw things up, it gets ugly for a while, and then we figure it out. Glimpses of the ‘figuring it out’ stage are starting to appear, like the Center for Humane Technology, a wonderful organization thoughtfully attacking the root causes of this problem from multiple angles.
There’s also the Humane Screenome Project; the Digital Wellness Institute; the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy. Tons of highly intelligent people working together to fix the mess we made. I’m optimistic because I believe in humanity’s ability to clean up its own messes, to overcome the worst parts of our nature by leaning into the best parts.
I also believe that continuing to talk about this causes a gradual shift in our collective consciousness, in the same way that a tiny nick caused by a pebble hitting your windshield eventually turns into a full-blown crack that can’t be ignored. These kinds of organizations, the ones that enact meaningful change, aren’t formed in a vacuum. They are the product of a society that has been forced to become aware of its own missteps by virtue of a bunch of people who won’t shut up.
This essay by itself isn’t going to extinguish the attention economy or convince Apple to overhaul its design principles. But maybe it can serve to widen that crack just a hair, bringing us closer to the point where we can see just how much damage it has caused.
And just as the not-so-badass scar on my face healed, so too might our technological crack in the windshield.
Thank you to all of the wonderful Write of Passage folks for giving thoughtful and detailed feedback on this piece:, , , , , , , , Andrew Mares, Greg Waning.