A Dose of Techno-Pessimism
The Problem(s) with Smartphones
Joshua Banner

The New York Times Sunday Book Review recently published a cartoon by Grant Snider proposing an innovation: “The Book of the Future.” The inventor highlights all of the ways that our current reading experience can be improved. The problem, thinks the inventor, is that “We are tired of reading on screens. They hurt our eyes and require special glasses… we always break them when riding moving sidewalks.” To solve these problems, he suggests that books should be more interactive, with pages that can be grasped and turned, that the size of a book should be in proportion to the amount of information inside. He proposes, “We’ll use non-glowing type encased in a protective layer of wood pulp… no need for special glasses… less eye strain… biodegradable.” The only problem with these new reading devices, the cartoon depicts in its closing frame, is that it will be difficult to carry them while operating a jetpack.

Media and technology critic Neil Postman argued that new innovation should always solve a real problem and, further, that we should consider what new problems might arise with the use of a new device (1988). As a bibliophile, the ebook reader strikes me as small potatoes. I personally have no temptation to read books on anything other than paper. However, the innovations in mobile technology that have created the “smart” phone might be creating problems much more serious than any they have solved. I wish I could buy one, but I just can’t.

Last year, a startling experience in a concert venue filled with college students left me puzzling over the ubiquity of the smartphone. The lights had gone down; any moment the band would appear and begin their set. From the balcony, I could see the glow of phone screens, qwerty keyboards, and touch pads. It was a sea of hand-held lights. The glimmer of hundreds of lit screens was beautiful; however, this sight left me jealous and agitated at the same time. There was something stunning here, but there was also something troubling. We were on the verge of entering into a musical journey with a fantastic band, and what were these “kids” doing? Snapping photos, finishing a conversation, texting a friend, tweeting followers, or just playing Angry Birds?

These devices are sleek. They are shiny. They are pocket-sized and fashionable—even sexy—but I wonder what, beyond the flashy and trendy appeal of our mobile technologies, what good they are. Does this technology solve a real problem? Could it create a new and potentially dangerous set of problems?

If where our treasure lies, our hearts will be also, consider that for the last year Apple Inc. has been trading places with Exxon Mobile as the most valuable company in the world. Named the world’s most admired company each year since 2008, Apple’s annual revenue rose to $108 billion, largely due to an 81 percent increase in iPhone sales. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that in 2011 almost half (46 percent) of American adults use smartphones, an increase of 11 percent in the last year; among 18–24 year olds, that number rises to 67 percent. In the darkness of a post 9/11 society that is slogging through the Great Recession, we find ourselves drawn to mobile technology as to a great light. Yet, says author Andy Crouch, the gospel of Apple “is, in the end, a set of beautifully polished empty promises” (Crouch 2011). Much has been written about Steve Jobs since his death, and certainly I want to be generous in critiquing his legacy. The iPhone, however, is not sacrosanct. What, indeed, is the nature of the “empty promises” of our newest wave of mobile technology?

Many Christian thinkers have voiced concerns about technology, but Jacques Ellul’s broad-sweeping techno pessimism most clearly reveals the illusion that technology offers. Ellul’s concern was not just with specific technologies but with technique, the elevation of rational efficiency as the highest human value. Ellul argued that constantly striving for the efficiency of technique leaves human life fragmented as technique imposes itself on every field of human activity (1970). Technology is not benign or innocent. Each innovation and device has embedded within it a set of values, its own promises of something better, something more useful and effective—a kind of “gospel.”

Henry David Thoreau’s early observation in the wake of coal and the steam engine that powered factories in New England should ring loudly and clearly in our ears today: “But lo! Men have become tools of their tools!” We naïvely assume that we are in control of our technology, using it to shape, form, and manipulate objects outside of ourselves. The irony is that a tool can instead control us, reforming us in its image and redefining our values and even our sense of reality. Which, for example, has had a more formative effect on young people today: absorbing the fact that ours is a world where the tragedy of 9/11 is possible, or growing accustomed to having instant access to the Internet through a device they carry in their pockets? The gospel of the latter allows diversion from the horror of the former. These devices are filled with powers to shape reality and, even more frighteningly, powers to shape our identities. Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality, explains this phenomena in his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. “Technologies are extensions of ourselves… our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets” (2010, 129–130). Smartphones might help us connect to each other, but they also help us to hide from each other, to lie about ourselves and lie to ourselves about the world we live in.

The smartphone offers us something not unlike the identity shape-shifting of a celebrity persona like Lady Gaga. As the first artist to sell over twenty million digital downloads, Lady Gaga is not coy about the method of her entrepreneurial madness. All of her waking life is a stage of performance art. To retain the attention of her fans, she must constantly re-package and sell herself: “I am a master of the art of fame,” she boasts (Cooper 2011). We might not chose Lady Gaga’s macabre, freak, and sado-masochistic tropes, like the coat made completely of raw meats or brassier and underpants that shoot sparkler-like flames, but with our pocket-sized access to the Web 2.0 and all its social media applications, we too can make our lives a kind of performance art. Like Lady Gaga, we can create and recreate ourselves by publishing carefully selected images, videos, and information, various kinds of masks and costumes onto a virtual yet global stage. The smartphone, if not used properly, is a horrifying device, an invitation to a global masquerade party, a circus of social interaction.

While these technologies seem to have the capacity to free and reveal the self, unfortunately they do more to hide and conceal, to fragment and alienate us. Mobile technology promises us the ability to be everywhere and seemingly to be in control of everything. In truth, these devices cause us to be nowhere and in control of very little. We have become what sociologist Dalton Conley has defined as “the elsewhere self.” Mobile technology, by definition, allows us to remain in constant motion. Conley says this “constant motion is a balm to a culture in which the very notion of authenticity—a lodestone of earlier epochs—has been shattered into a thousand emails” (2009, 8). Or a thousand instant messages, or a thousand texts, or tweets, or hashtags.

What were those college students doing in the few remaining moments before the concert began? They were in motion, moving elsewhere. Yes, our mobile technology enables a frantic pace of existence, always on the move, operating on the fly… gotta do more, gotta be moreas we text while walking, while eating, while maneuvering through traffic. The more significant danger, which I witnessed that night surrounded by a sea of cell phone lights, is not merely a question of physical motion and external busyness. The deeper poverty of our age results from the internal motion of our attention, the motion of our sense of self from dissipation to conflagration, giving way to identity confusion. Do we use a smartphone throughout the day to express ourselves, or is the Internet expressing itself upon us through the smartphone?

To be optimistic about a life of wholeness necessitates a discerning pessimism—a healthy suspicion of anything that might distract and fragment. Our sophisticated society is layered with such obstacles, and each of us will find different points at which we must draw a line. Is it possible to use a smartphone with care? Perhaps it is. But as I already struggle with so many distractions, with fragmentation, I cannot trust myself with one: the problems it would create for me would overwhelm any problems it might solve.


Joshua Banner is Minister of Art and Music at Hope College, Holland, Michigan, and is a contributor to For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010).


Works Cited

Conley, Dalton. Elsewhere, U.S.A. New York: Pantheon, 2009.

Cooper, Anderson. “Lady Gaga and the Art of Fame,” 60 Minutes. CBS. 13 February 2011.

Crouch, Andy. “A World Without Jobs,” Culture Making. 18 January 2011 (http://www.culture-making.com/articles/a_world_without_jobs).

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. John Wilkinson, trans. New York: Knopf, 1970. Originally published as La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle (Paris: Armand Colin, 1954).

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not A Gadget, A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Postman, N. (1998) “New technology keeps whizzing into our lives.” The Guardian, 5 December (The Editor, 12–13).

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