The New York Times ran an article the other day bemoaning the smartphone and the grave effects they surely are having on us and, worse *gasp*, those younger than us. It starts stating these nefarious devices are harming our creativity and then goes on to list a bunch of examples of the author judging people for using their phones.
This is just the next version of an incredibly long running dialog surrounding technology. A couple of years ago the fear was that texting was going to destroy grammar and spelling. All of these creative ways children were slimming down complex thoughts into “text speech” were going to result in them losing the ability to form coherent thoughts with proper grammar or spelling. On the surface this makes some sense, if they are so regularly abusing the language, how could they possibly settle down and write a proper professional document?
Numerous studies came out to show why this wasn’t panning out to be the case, but fundamentally, the theory makes no sense. What people are doing when they create text speech is in no way incoherent, and the ability to bend all of these rules and still have the person on the other end of the conversation immediately follow what you are saying with no use of timing, inflection or voice modulation is a sign of absolute mastery of a language, not deficiency. The reality has been that these text conversations are opening up a whole new way for us to practice our writing skills, and all that means is everyone becomes a better writer and more skilled linguist.
Smartphones are an extension of this same texting argument. Smartphones allow us to be extraordinarily creative in basically every environment. More than just that, they allow us to document our creativity, adding to the shared history which literally defines our species. Smartphones make it possible to write a song on the subway. Smartphones allow you to discretely investigate the ingredients of a dish on a menu to ensure you don’t get ill while on a date. Smartphones empower us to always ask questions about our environment and learn. Sitting in a park, a smartphone enables you to learn which birds are chirping about and where they’re migrating to; or what type of tree is providing the shade for your picnic.
There is absolutely something to be said for the value of silence or even quiet observation. Nothing about smartphone prevents us from having those moments when we want them. I’m sure Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the groundbreaking mega-hit “Hamilton and launching point for the authors tirade owns a smartphone.
It’s easy to think that before smartphones that people were less distracted, but quite frankly, it’s not true. People are going to be distracted by all types of things, and adding headphones or a screen to the mix is not fundamentally changing anything. What did exist before smartphones was a feeling of boredom, and this feeling is now gone.
I also want to address this misconception that “Eureka” moments come from periods of silence or quiet observation. In the examples given by Lin-Manuel Miranda, he’s doing things, taking a shower, doodling and playing with his son. When I think back on my “Ah-Ha” moments most have actually occurred when I’m speaking. I find myself saying something which suddenly makes a ton of sense to me. Even though the thought seemed to come from nowhere, these off the cuff responses have frequently been some of the biggest and best revelations of my life. The key to these moments is that you are not thinking directly about the topic in the same way. In essence, these moments come when you lose focus and are becoming distracted, you know, smartphone stuff.
If you find yourself judging people using smartphones for trivial behavior, that’s simply a reflection on your lack of creativity about their possible use cases for the computer. Who knows what they’re doing, and frankly, who cares? The reality of what they could be using it for is what’s beautiful. These devices allow us to achieve things we never could’ve before in virtually every situation and environment imaginable. Who’s to say where the distractions end and the “Eureka” moments fuel begins?