Living Rhythmically

Module 4, Class 4: Smartphones are not objects, they’re patterns

Everyday life is made up of rhythms – routines, cycles, patterns. Time never appears to us as a simple line, but always through such patterns. This means that not only life or time in a general sense, but all our particular activities and relationships are mediated to us through those rhythms. It is therefore worth thinking about where these rhythms come from and who or what establishes and maintains them. Is it us? The natural world? The constructed environment? Some or other institution? Likely it’s a combination of factors but it’s worth thinking about since, arguably, whoever or whatever controls the rhythm controls society itself.

Our lives are organized so much according to the work-week, various calendars, the infrastructure that determines how we move through the world, that it seems to me to be difficult to claim that natural rhythms are the primary organizing force in our lives. Almost every natural rhythm is bound up with and mediated through such constructed environments and institutions. This means that while individual humans have relatively little influence over how their lives are constructed (contrary to their own belief in their control of reality), collectively, humanity has a lot of power to organize its own reality through the organization of space-time into rhythms. This is sometimes called the architecture of choice.

The difficulty, though, is that since these rhythms are so normalized in most of our experience, we spend very little time thinking about them. They are the backdrop to most of our concerns. However, these rhythms are organizing our lives for us and it’s therefore worth asking whether any given rhythm in fact contributes to human flourishing or not.

One such rhythm that I am particularly interested in considering, in part because it’s so new, is that of the hand-held electronic device. I am startled by how quickly and willingly we have adopted the smartphone into our everyday lives with little reflection on its effects, or at least not enough reflection to change behavior. This is striking because of the degree to which the smartphone has come to determine our day-to-day rhythms. According to the Social Times, the first thing 80% of 18-44 year-olds do in the morning is check their phone, and 79% have their phones near them all but 2 hours a day. Phone-checking is repeated throughout the day, though no doubt with different frequency for different people. As an activity that frames the day and is repeated at semi-regular intervals, the phone is not simply an object but represents quite a persistent rhythm, a new one.

One of the interesting things about the smartphone is that it is for most of us so unnecessary. But you wouldn’t know it based on its prevalence. I asked my students what the smartphone is for, what it really adds to life. It seems to me that it simply repeats what your computer already does and the things that my computer does I do not need to carry on my person at all times (I realize I may have just made myself very unpopular). Most of the reasons they gave came down to convenience: it makes things like navigation, purchasing, and photography slightly more convenient.

First of all, however, I am not convinced that all of these needs are not created by the phone itself. For example, I have no desire to take pictures of my day-to-day environment, but I might develop this desire if I suddenly found myself able to do so with ease. Our desires do not simply create our constructed world. Our constructed world also creates our desires (again, architecture of choice).

Second, if the phone only makes life slightly more convenient, how do you then explain the fact that it seems to hold its users in such a tight rhythm of checking and re-checking? Participants in the Social Times study said the sentiment that they most associated with their phone is “connectedness.” The phone has become one of the primary means of connection between people. So once again we have here a rhythm, albeit of a very different kind, connecting people to one another. In this case the rhythm is one of short bursts of phone-related activity, much of it social, that punctuate the day at semi-regular intervals. This is the new pattern in which interpersonal interaction is embedded. Moreover, this is a rhythm on which we are carried along. Much of this behavior has become quite automated. Each instance of phone-checking is not chosen, but undertaken habitually and half-consciously. Students tell me that forgetting their phone “throws off their whole day.”

It seems to me that we have the responsibility to ask whether this new rhythm that has become part of our lives does more harm or more good. Like all rhythms, the phone does not unambiguously connect or unify. At the same time that it connects us to a community of other phone-users, it may also reduce our connection to those in our immediate vicinity and our physical environment, perhaps even our own thoughts. The phone is often used as an antidote to mildly unpleasant activities. Think about the activity of waiting, for example. While no one particularly likes it, it becomes the opportunity to think, day-dream, or notice the beauty of our environment. When phone-checking prevents us from having to wait, does it also prevent these other important by-products? What opportunities veiled as slightly unpleasant situations might we be missing?

And what about our relationships? Does this new rhythm set up a situation in which we largely interact with others in short bursts? What effect does this have on our capacity to remain attentive in longer interactions, or in uncomfortable or boring interactions? What does intimacy look like without these experiences? Is it still possible? Do our relationships become more transactional when we are able to determine who we talk to and when, rather than allowing the communities of our particular place, and the rhythms of our day, determine this for us?

While there might be arguments for why patterns of smartphone use do encourage human flourishing, I don’t trust the argument that they are neutral objects that we will probably use well unless we have some kind of serious problem. Language about objects and technology being neutral and it’s all a matter of how it’s used and what it’s used for is unpersuasive to me. Smartphones, by the ways that they are constructed, encourage certain rhythms of use. It is the height of hubris and illusion to think that we are self-disciplined enough to automatically use this technology in ways that encourage flourishing, for ourselves and our communities. All objects encourage particular patterns of use, yet I don’t see people asking whether they are really willing for this device to play such a large role in patterning their time, attention, and relationships.

We are not just talking about an object. We are talking about a patter, a rhythm. Is it a rhythm we want to frame and organize our lives? The answer might be ‘yes,’ but let’s at least be informed about what this means and looks like for human flourishing before answering.

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