Carl Wernicke: Smartphones & Civilization

Aug 23, 2017

Anthropologists have long been fascinated with the evolution of mankind, both physically and culturally. In the past this largely depended on reading the historical record. But today we have entered the era of evolution as a forced march, driven hard by what could be the most insidious horror ever unleashed on humanity:

The cell phone.

Yes, I know that decrying the decline of new generations is as old as humanity itself. I won’t quote the numerous ancient philosophers on the subject, always raised to show that nothing is new under the sun. I will note for the record, however, that all those ancient civilizations did collapse.

Still, most of us have come to a grudging acceptance of the so-called smart phone; like the automobile, you can’t live without it. One my brothers, a noted hold-out, recently traded his flip-phone for a modern one. In large part this was prompted by the fact that emoticons showed up in texts as indecipherable coding, and he couldn’t stand it anymore. He suspected another of my brothers was deliberately showering him with unreadable emoticons.

But discomfort with the smart phone is spreading. Just in the last week or so I read a lament from humorist Garrison Keillor, caught in the dark hole of an iPhone upgrade he couldn’t control, and a scholarly dissertation in Atlantic magazine using sophisticated data analysis that raises alarms about what phones are doing to the first generation to be truly immersed in them since birth.

Again, yes, I know these alarms have been raised before. But this article was sobering, and shows how powerful the changes can be. It’s in the September issue, and of course online, where you can read it on your phone.

No, the changes are not all worrisome. A decline in sexual activity might comfort parents, and a reduced interest in automobiles seems healthy. But the dramatic decline in face-to-face socialization is not, nor are the spiraling rates of depression and suicide. One powerful anecdote involves a young girl snatching a phone from the hands of a friend and throwing it against the wall because the friend can barely lift her eyes from the screen while the girl is baring her soul on a family problem.

No, none of this is conclusive at this point. But it is worth noting that Steve Jobs himself, the father of the iPhone and iPad, limited his children’s access to these devices when they were very young.

I myself was dragged into an iPhone upgrade maelstrom. I’ll try to be concise. Back in the day, my wife and I had the same email, and we both used it for cell phone stuff, including downloading apps. Eventually I got a separate email, and my wife kept the original. This resulted in my phone holding some apps based on her email, and others on mine. Recently I got a newer, upgraded iPhone, and it began insistently demanding my wife’s password to update some apps. Like most people we can barely keep up with all these passwords, and I couldn’t get my phone to accept any of the multiple variations I tried. Hitting cancel simply led to an increasingly rapid insistence by the phone to be fed an acceptable password.

Just when, like Keillor, I was considering smashing the phone with a hammer I tried deleting the apps that had failed to upgrade, and the demands ceased, at least temporarily averting a nasty meltdown on my part.

Still, I live in constant worry of what is coming next. I guess I should try Googling some answers on my phone.