In your head, maybe you hear one of your baby boomer relatives’ voices when you read this title. You know the one. At the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, they will list Gen Z’s many delinquencies and short attention span, raving about “the TikTok” before playing Candy Crush on top volume. But before you scroll on, hear my somewhat manic, definitely not boomer thought.
I spend a lot of time scrolling through social media. After classes, meetings, working two jobs, plant and cat momming, etc., there is no better time to scroll through Instagram Reels while a TV show plays in the background. It sort of feels like I am refueling all the happy-brain chemicals depleted through the shortening fall days. Of course, the concept of smartphone and social media platforms capitalizing on their hypermobility and dopamine surges to mold addictive behaviors is not new, according to Harvard. But I have not fully appreciated its sheer revolutionary force on our collective behavior until I forget my phone for one day or I have scrolled to complete exhaustion.
Funny enough, I did not have a smartphone until I turned 19. Before I belatedly joined smartphone users, I used a flip phone or a “dumbphone” that lacked the sheer processing capacity of smartphones. I’d smack the screen shut after clicking the “seven” key four times to type the letter “S,” and ultimately, my online existence was solely tethered to the family computer and eventually a laptop purchased in my senior year of high school. Although I occasionally blogged cringey fiction, and my best friend and I occasionally recorded terrible YouTube acoustic guitar covers, the computer and I had a respectful understanding.
Although some may argue that laptops are addicting, smartphones have undeniably changed the concept of navigating through space and time with technology as inextricable objects from the self. Whether walking to class, going to bed or taking a study break in the library, a false sense of dual attention arises when you open your phone. Scroll TikTok while your TV show builds up its plot, look for jobs on LinkedIn while you are on the train, pull up Instagram Stories while the conversation lulls. The act of choosing limitless reloads of seconds-long content and passing images over other in-body interactions slowly chips away our lifespan from one landscape and piles it into another one.
At least, that is the way I began to feel about it during my phoneless incident. Paradoxically, it is not the way I felt about it four days later when I spent too much time doing what felt truly like nothing because, for the moment, it felt like everything. Still, I went down a spiraling realization that technology has created a plump, palm-sized universe that we are designed to fall into. How can we keep ourselves from falling into behavior designed to be addicting when that is the business model?
I am not saying that smartphones are just terrible and unsafe. Maps help us safely arrive at our destination without printing out Mapquest; Google Translate crosses language barriers with incredible speed and ease. What I am saying is smartphones are wonderfully powerful tools for sharing immediate, collective knowledge to help me find the tastiest restaurants in New York City, and they are terrible and unsafe.
In my perfectly calm realization, I furiously googled dumbphones that support safety features and useful tools like maps, maybe email and hey…why not Spotify, too? But finding a phone that supports some features without easily rebooting addictive apps was incredibly challenging. Still, I do not want to return to a flip phone and purchase a clunky GPS that I suction-cup to my car’s dashboard or my forehead. Where is that perfect hybrid phone that does not reinforce addictive behavior? The LightPhone, a millennial-esque minimalist device that is pricey from its aesthetic, clean marketing? Perhaps a BlackBerry, that unsightly missing link between flip phones and smartphones, or the famously indestructible Nokia? Yet if there is anything true about capitalism, it can dream up and spit out products that fulfill our needs and desires. Case in point, glow in the dark toilet paper. Yet this ideal phone that we could collectively use as a healthy boundary with technology does not appear to exist because it is the least profitable to exist. This is why I most definitely should buy a dumbphone, and you most probably definitely should, if the ideal one should come to be. So if you see me around campus snapping a flip phone shut, know that I have cracked and joined the Luddite Club.