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Smartphones are killing off opportunities for us to be alone with our thoughts

Voices | Published:

By Sam Le Quesne

Sam Le Quesne

PETER Pan might be the play for which J M Barrie is best remembered but his most lastingly relevant work must surely be the one he wrote a couple of years before that in 1902.

The Admirable Crichton is a play that scandalised Edwardian England with its subversive tale of an aristocratic family shipwrecked on a desert island with only their butler, the eponymous Crichton, to turn to for help. And, of course, because Crichton is the only one among this band of helpless fops who actually knows how to do anything, he ends up becoming the boss.

Knowledge is power, in other words, and while the rigid class structures of Crichton’s world may no longer be there to present us with obvious parallels to our own, the basic principle of Barrie’s play still holds true in 2018.

And nowhere is it more apparent than in our relationship with technology. Smartphones, in particular.

These objects have become the twenty-first century’s equivalent of a Crichton-esque domestic servant – and we, in turn, have become similarly reliant on them.

They are the primary means by which so many of our needs are now met (information, entertainment, shopping, social engagements, dating – the list is seemingly endless).

They are our facilitators – and, at worst, our enablers – and yet how many among us truly understand what they do?

I’m not talking about the practical science of microelectronics and so on – I’m talking about the way these devices are shaping our behaviour. The way they are encouraging our dependency.

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How, in this sense, are we any different from the enfeebled aristos in Barrie’s play, whose insight into the activities of their servants extended no further than knowing that they appear when a bell cord is pulled, and then disappear once an instruction has been given?

To us, the functions of any given app that we might be using are just as mysterious. We know as little about them as Crichton’s employer knew about where the silver polish was kept or how to pluck a goose.

But that’s not to say we should be panicking about losing control over our lives – that’s been happening for as long as people have been inventing things. We can’t possibly be expected to keep abreast of how everything works.

No, the problem here – I would even go so far as to call it a threat – comes in the fact that the smartphone is always with us, and in some ways, it is drawing us into a higher stakes game than we, as a species, have ever been in before.

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There are things that are being won away from us now that we can’t afford to lose.

And chief among these, in my view, is our relationship with ourselves.

Our phones have inserted themselves into the space where silence ought naturally to occur, where states like solitude and contemplation previously held sway.

And while these aren’t states we should be spending a huge amount of time in – it’s obviously good to be connected to others (which was the campaign slogan of the digital revolution in the first place) – we do still need to spend a little time there.

And yet the devices we have with us day and night are making it so much harder for us to do that.

Where is the cue to stop? Where is the natural pause that you find at the end of a chapter, say, or a TV programme or film?

News feeds just scroll on and on, as do memes, vines, clips, tweets, posts and everything else that we thumb through on our phones.

They are bottomless pits, and worse, they are horribly addictive.

The premasticated pap of a digital feed is so much more appealing after a long, tiring day, than the comparatively daunting prospect of sitting quietly with our own thoughts for a while, in the way that you might when you close a book or turn off the telly.

Like Barrie’s marooned lords and ladies, we have been lulled into a full-service, curated existence of sorts, consuming only the content that is put in front of us, without ever stopping to involve ourselves in the harder (but highly necessary) pursuit of a bit of meditative solitude.

And the rate at which it’s happening is frightening. Check out the ‘time use survey’ from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to get an idea of what the trends look like.

It can’t continue at such a gallop – at least, I hope it can’t. But for the time being, this is what’s happening.

And so we need to learn to protect ourselves against the ill effects.

We’re at the raw awakening of a new age of digital living, and in many ways, that’s a good thing, but with it comes a great deal of largely ungoverned exposure to powerful forces.

Which is why it’s up to us, wherever possible, to do ourselves a favour and seize each and every opportunity to turn off for a while and tune out.

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