Another Note on Smartphones

<this was written in response to a student who wrote disparagingly of the obsession that we have with buying technology, like smartphones>

You note that it is kind of ridiculous that we buy so many things that we can conceive of not having, i.e. smartphones, computers, etc. But isn’t it the case that our lives would be significantly (at least relative to our contemporaries) more difficult if we didn’t have those technologies? Here’s an example: the other day, my wife’s car broke down, and she asked me to come from campus to help her. I missed the bus, and then discovered on the next bus that my transit account was empty. This meant that it was going to take a really long time to get up to where she was, and so I decided to get a car instead.

The only problem is, I don’t have a smartphone, and so I was at a disadvantage in at least two ways. First, because our access to money has migrated to more digital media (more credit cards, online banking, banking through phone apps, etc.) rather than cash, I am not accustomed to carrying bills to pay for buses, nor can I transfer money to my account through my smartphone (because I don’t have one). Second, I couldn’t get an uber or a lyft. Rather, I had to rely on a more dated mode of transportation: the cab. The only problem is, there are less cab drivers now than previously (this is also the case with bus lines in Chicago) because uber and lyft have overwhelmed the market. So, I am put at a disadvantage, relative to the rest of the (smartphone toting) population, because of this lack of technology. Both social and living conditions shift with technological innovations. I am thus less well adapted to the structure of contemporary transportation than others who have smartphones, and thus have a harder time getting around than them.

Now, of course, I’m not going to die because of my lack of a smartphone (We could conceive of a future where the only way to get in contact with a doctor or the police is via smartphone, but this is probably unlikely). Nevertheless, because we live in an affluent society, our immediate concerns never really are ones of survival, but rather of fitness to social and cultural fulfillment. To go back to my example, not being able to take a cab up to my family meant that I reasonably could have (had I had a smartphone and the Uber app), but failed to do so.

This might seem to be a trivial example (it is), but it points to the fact that we can find cases where transportation is made more difficult in more serious circumstances. If, for example, you have to become registered to vote by attaining a state issued ID, or have to travel a distance to vote at all, and transportation is more difficult to get because of whatever reason (poverty, immobility, lack of technology, etc.), then you are going to be less likely to get your ID, and be less likely to vote/participate in the democratic process. Or, if you do not have access to certain medical technologies, then you may be at a higher risk of harm than those who do. This is because diseases and viruses are evolving rapidly as we create ever more complex technology (medicine, etc.) to combat them. “Superbugs” and other artificially weaponized natural agents are a threat even to those who do have access to current technology, and therefore much more so to those without it.

While I definitely agree that we should think more critically about our reliance on technology, I think we should also acknowledge that the problem perhaps lies not in those who have or use advanced technology (by accusing them of frivolous spending), but rather in the way that we have let these technologies insinuate themselves into our everyday lives and make themselves necessary.


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