It’s Not the Smartphone, It’s You and It’s Me

There’s this line you’ve probably seen before, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s often attributed to Plato or Philo, but they almost certainly said no such thing. Nevertheless, I like the sentiment; there’s a good deal of truth to it. Sometimes, though, it is a battle to be kind. It is sometimes a battle even to be attentive to another person or to take note of them at all.

This is not a recent phenomenon. It is not caused by the Internet, social media, or mobile phones just as it was not caused by the Industrial Revolution, telephones, or books. It is the human condition. It is much easier to pay attention to our own needs and desires. We know them more intimately; they are immediately before us. No effort of the will is involved.

Being attentive to another person, however, does require an act of the will. It does not come naturally. It involves deliberate effort and sometimes the setting aside of our own desires. It may even be a kind of sacrifice to give our attention to another and to be kind an act of heroism.

I’m thinking about all of this after reading Evan Selinger’s essay in Wired about technology and etiquette. In it Selinger reminds us that “effort is the currency of care.” That is remarkably well put.

Here’s another line that I like: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” That one is from Simone Weil. Simone Weil did not have a smartphone, they weren’t around then; yet attention was still considered rare.

But the smartphone is not altogether irrelevant, nor is any other technology to which we might lend our attention. The thing about attention is that we can only direct it toward one thing at a time. So when we are in the presence of another person, the smartphone in the pocket may make it harder to pay attention to that person. But the smartphone isn’t doing a thing. It’s just there. It’s not the smartphone, it’s you and it’s me. It’s about understanding our own proclivities. It’s about understanding how the presence of certain material realities interact with our ability to direct our intention and perception. It’s about remembering the great battle we fight simply to be decent human beings from one moment to the next and doing what we can to make it more likely that we will win rather than lose that battle.

Maybe that means putting the smartphone away or turning it off or getting rid of it altogether. Maybe it means doing the same thing with a book. But it also means recognizing that you’re doing so not because of what you know about the smartphone or the book, but because of what you know about yourself.

16 thoughts on “It’s Not the Smartphone, It’s You and It’s Me

  1. Me?
    You say somethin about me?
    Let me show You!

    Not where I wanted to look today.
    But now that I think about it. …Attention…the most refined form of generosity? Amazing currencied. A whole new world. I like new worlds.
    : )
    Awsomeness as usual.

  2. Powerful message! Let us never get weary in showing kindness, as well as giving our undivided attention to each other.
    The later is difficult, especially in the age of technology, which is why it’s always good to be reminded.

  3. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
    I wonder how schools and teachers consider this quote, especially those who have BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and liberal cell phone use policies.

  4. Great piece. I was drawn to it because I have just acquired a smartphone ( which I can’t use) and I thought this was about dinosaurs like me who can’t even answer the thing if and when it rings.

    On second reading, I just loved the whole message.

  5. Kindness, perhaps just another word for love, which is the one thing more powerful than hate. Time for each other, giving without thought of receiving, giving one hundred percent – as a species, we have a long way to go, but we’re getting there, slowly, but on the journey anyway.

  6. I miss privacy and the privacy that one would have in making a phone call. Remember the phone booth? What a great invention, your own little sound proof booth where you could give your full attention to the person on the other end of the line. Now we talk while in line, at the market, walking down the street, in front of other people, sometimes in loud and discourteous voices. Oh, how I long for it! Full attention, whether given in person, on line, or on the phone, a rare thing indeed.

  7. There’s this thing Herbert Marcuse wrote about that he called compliant efficiency. Anyone who doesn’t adjust to the new “technological rationality” is written off by Organization Man (he still exists, you know) as working against one’s own best interests. Of course Marcuse stressed the short-sightedness of this attitude. It’s not human nature to heavily invest in compliant efficiency, it’s an artefact of the liberal-rationalist ethos that is all but ubiquitous and increasing its breadth and scope every day. And, becoming too enmeshed in electronic devices such as smartphones will affect your vagal tone, so argues Barbara L. Fredrickson in a forthcoming paper in the journal Psychological Science. Unplugging is hard, but essential.

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