Cal Newport relays a story from a reader named Peter who recently visited the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas. LBJ had a phone installed poolside while serving as president in order to remain accessible. A tour guide told visitors this story, who responded with laughter. We all have phones now. Everywhere.
In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.
I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.
And this is exactly right. Who knows what we’ll think about the smartphone in another ten, twenty, or fifty years?
We may discover that our obsession with social media has proven even more destructive, harmful, and wasteful than we perceive it to be now. The smartphone has affected how we consume news, who and what we consider a friend, our social expectations, our speed of life, our perception of the “good life,” and our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. We may find that a flourishing human life doesn’t depend on the connectivity created by digital technology, but is found instead in something older and much less dependent on a screen, an electronic portal allowing us to transcend time and space.
What would that be? Unmediated human connection; flesh and blood presence, conversation, and shared activity. Doing things together in the concrete, rather than the digital.
Newport is careful. He says that digital connectivity may prove to be less essential than we imagined. It will still have a place. But it may be better to begin finding ways now to lessen dependence on our smartphones, create space for solitude and silence, designate spaces and zones where digital connectivity is no longer expected or required, and invest our energy in connecting face to face with family members, neighbors, and others living nearby.