My Smartphone Won’t Conquer Me

I was walking through a park the other day, on my way to catch a train. I had my phone in my hand, my thumb probing and prodding. The sky above was dark with rain, so I checked the forecast. Then I looked up my train, and checked how far I’d walked that day, and refreshed my emails, and skipped to the next track of the playlist I was listening to. Then I looked up a recipe for some food I was planning to make later. I skimmed the news, checked the time. My phone never let me down, and I suddenly had the thought that it was better at running my life than I was.

This is how technology will conquer the human race. We won’t wait for the singularity: we will simply hand over control, believing it to be an astute decision. We’ll decide we’re not good enough to rule over the computers any more: we’ll slink to the sidelines, subordinate ourselves willingly. Merrily.

If you’ve never heard of it, the singularity is that supposed moment in time when technologically will be sufficiently powerful to upgrade itself without the need (or limits) of human intelligence. When the time comes, it is said that the rate at which computers will improve will accelerate in pace. So called recursive self-improvement opens the possibility of an intelligence explosion, ever hastening and evermore assertive, thereby threatening the welfare of the human race — should there be a conflict between the computers’ progress and our needs.

But I wonder: are we not already preparing ourselves for the subordination of humankind with our smartphones? That we might already have slavish tendencies towards these personal devices is witnessed by that ubiquitous bodily posture — head bent, neck hunched, hand raised, finger or thumb poised — that speaks overwhelmingly of insularity, even a type of surrender to the machine. I read in a recent newspaper article that doctors predict the way we tap and swipe is likely to evolve the very structure of our hands, such is the demand these phones are putting on our bodies. I wonder.

Let me make an admission: I am a lukewarm technophile. When it comes to RAM, ROM, upgrades, chipsets, legacy compatibility, megapixels or talk-time, I’m a late-adopter. A slow-uptaker.

My initial impulse towards the first phase of mobile phones — those early bulbous bricks from the 1980s with such antiquities as aerial prongs and actual plastic buttons — was amusement. When the ‘second generation’ digital cellular systems emerged I saw friends take them up and integrate them into their social lives. I saw their pockets bulging uncomfortably and heard their ringtones pinging embarrassingly. The integration was beginning.

For me the very connectedness was the drawback. Of course, back then it wasn’t called connectedness — the elation around networks was yet to come — but was instead recommended for the convenience. It was convenient to tell you mom that you were going to be late for dinner, or let your friends know that you’d caught the bus and were on your way to meet them. The effect, in my eyes, was prosaic: to possess one of these message-tinklers was to bind yourself to the lusterless responsibility of keeping others informed, and to consequently worry about battery life and signal loss lest a message fail to make it’s required journey. But that was just me, high in my pen-and-ink tower, and, alas, never the heart and soul of a party.

Later incarnations in the form of smartphones are, of course, more fantastic and much harder to turn down. I finally bought my first phone a good decade after everyone else, and now swipe and tap and scroll with the best of them. The slew of social media platforms and the apps that support them, so giving rise to the profound reworking of distance and community into a new type of agency, is intriguing even to the most ashen-faced Luddite. The fact that photos and videos can spool across continents in a matter of seconds, proliferating conversations between individuals who will never meet in person, is a remarkable and profound innovation.

Moreover, the life force of a smartphone can give the impression of something magical. The glowing screen, pulsing ribbons of light, the élan vital of this little rectangle of plastic and glass is spectral and, for some at least, no less than spellbinding. Out of electrical impulses fired around tiny circuit boards, overlayed with framework upon framework of dense computer code, comes a pixel-precise organism that speaks and listens, sings and plays, and travels with us wherever we go. An organism that we may even come to love. Certainly few of us can live without it.

Each new generation of smartphone is slicker, cleverer and more integrated than the last. I have begun to toy with mine as instructor and mentor — telling me when to wake, sleep, eat, run, meditate. Perhaps soon I will rely on it in yet more profound ways: to supplement my intelligence, to administer medication, to regulate my moods. I will delegate more and more, and believe I am doing the right thing.

The process is made more mysterious because, as custodians of our smartphones, we feel rather removed from its internal marrow. We are aware of the finely balanced logic and programmatic syntax that is fizzing away underneath, but being so tightly sealed inside tamper-proof casing, exactly how the spark of life occurs, how it invigorates from bytes to bright lights, may seem darkly obscure. Truly, most of us have no idea what lies behind the inner animus of these amazing devices.

Technology is the means by which the human race may perfect itself.

Perhaps technology has always played this role: to overcome the limits of our bodies and to harness the power of the materials around us. Under this rubric, great wonders have been achieved for the benefit of so many.

The next steps are already agoot. Connecting computers to brains not science-fiction; it is already here, and showing extraordinary results. Brain-computer interfaces — using brain imaging, specifically neurofeedback — are already supporting patients with hearing difficulties, those living with Parkinson’s, and allowing the paralyzed to animate robotic arms with just their thoughts.

It takes only a small leap of imagination to envisage human-machines whose exact physical makeup maybe uncertainly captured by the term “hybrid”. In these conditions, we will be more than just reliant on the power of computer: our well-being will be conditional on it.

One wonders how tolerant any of us will be to imperfection in these future days. What pressures will there be to upgrade? How far will parents go to make sure their child is a step ahead of the rest? How will innate human flaws be treated in this new era?

Human flaws have long been the subject of science. And the ridding of these flaws has long been the ambition of tyrants, totalitarians and madmen, among others.

This essay is emphatically not a rally cry against technology. I am amazed and inspired by the way technology can improve our lives. This essay is simply an extrapolation of a thought I had as I walked through my local park, phone in hand, going about my business.

My point is merely this: that the ease with which new technologies become integral to our lives should make us pause and consider, Who would I be without my very human hopes and fears? Why not cherish these shortcomings? Yes, we are flawed, but to defend these flaws may yet protect us from our own destruction.

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of Berlin Tales:

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