Here, there, everywhere

It’s changing mankind much as fire, the wheel, the printing press and the steam engine once did; we can no longer imagine life without a smartphone. The clever device makes almost anything possible – but it has us well in hand, more than we should like.

By Peter Hossli

The other day in the Alps: Four good-looking people sit in a cable car being whisked to the mountains above Saas Fee. They are two men and two women. Do they flirt? Do they arrange to meet for après-ski drinks? Do they at least introduce themselves?

None of the above. They don’t exchange a word. Each pulls out a smartphone from specially designed pockets in their fashionable ski gear. Heads bowed, the four peruse e-mails, watch videos, check the weather. One is flirting – apparently with a woman who happens to be in another corner of the planet.

All four hide behind glass and metal. All four type with special gloves allowing them to control their telephone touchscreens.

In this idyllic alpine landscape one thing becomes clear: Flirting is dead, slain by the smart phone.

The other day in Washington, D.C.: The new US president Donald Trump (70) is sworn into office and gives a historic speech. Hundreds of thousands have been waiting for hours for him to speak. However, they will choose to perceive the moment itself only on the small screen in their hands.

Instead of experiencing history first hand by watching it happen, they film something they will hardly ever watch.

After the inauguration, the National Mall in Washington empties quickly. Some people get directions to the subway on their smartphones. Others use them to call for a car on Uber. For those who feel like watching it again, Trump’s speech is available on YouTube, the best photos of the day are on Instagram, news apps provide assessments of the new president’s performance in any language. On WhatsApp my colleagues in Zurich are asking when the text I am writing on my iPhone will come in. Sitting in the Uber car, I transmit videos to Zurich via WeTransfer.

An app pays for cake and coffee in the afternoon. After work the phone finds a suitable restaurant and buys tickets for the cinema. It lets me video chat with my family. While others use it to find short-term physical intimacy that same evening.

The device measures steps, counts calories, tells the time, the weather, the stock prices. It translates, records sound, processes images. It rings, buzzes, makes music, is an office, a library, a diary and a newsstand. Everything a reporter needs to do he can do with this. Oh, and yes, it even makes phone calls.

No other companion is as close to us, satisfies our urges and replaces sex. It is the last thing we let go of at night, the first thing we touch in the morning. In restaurants a couple of them will be lying on the table at any dinner for two. Once the food is ordered, both diners will grab their devices. She will write, he will read or vice versa. Once they have eaten their salads, they will exchange the fork for the telephone again.

In Germany the expression «Smombie» was voted youth expression of the year 2015 – a portmanteau word made up of «smartphone» and «zombie». It describes people who constantly stare at their cellphones, stumbling around like the walking dead without taking in their surroundings. In China, they are dubbed «dai tau juk» – the tribe of head-down people. While walking, lying down, sitting, cycling or driving the «generation head down» is incessantly staring at electronic devices. According to the Nation Safety Council over a quarter of all traffic accidents in the U.S. are caused by cell phones use while driving.

It has been ten years since Apple boss Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) introduced the iPhone – a device that would be three things in one: an iPod, a telephone and a gateway to the Internet.

What an understatement. Nowadays it does – almost everything.

The iPhone – and its knock-offs – have catapulted, overturned, brought up short, extremely accelerated and drastically impacted people’s lives – much as had fire, the wheel, the printing press, the steam engine and flying.

Not since two atom bombs were dropped on Japan has any technology so radically changed the nature of our world.

Nowadays, absurd is the new normal. Reading tweets on the toilet; chatting with people in the desert while riding a ski lift. Mothers caress their iPhone as their babies crawl around in the sand. Global podcasts trickle through white ear plugs as you ride a bike. Instead of talking to them, parents scold their children for gaming and messaging – only to go on gaming and messaging themselves.

The iPhone has created new business sectors and professions, eclipsing those of old. Today, there are app developers. Ten years ago banks and energy companies were among the world’s biggest corporations. These days it’s technology companies that have made it big thanks to the smartphone: Apple, Facebook, Alphabet and China Mobile.

A media company without a range of mobile products? Fuggedaboutit!

The smartphone has us well in hand. We touch it about 2,600 times a day on average. According to a British survey we spend five hours a day doing so. That is one third of our waking hours and twice what people think it is.

But what does that do to us, when we are here and there and everywhere at once? When we are sitting in meetings while telling our girlfriend which movie is on where? When nothing happens in the here and now anymore but is always elsewhere on our touch screen?

Nothing damages the psyche more than the smartphone in our pockets, says American brain researcher Gary Small. «The iPhone affects us tremendously.» For as long as the battery permits, sounds, texts, photos and videos will flow from the smartphone to the brain.


This, maintains Small, changes our thinking. Pauses have always helped people process experiences, store thoughts and form resulting knowledge. If you only ever absorb and never rest, you will learn nothing and forget. «As all information is online, we do not make an effort to remember anything,» says Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford University.

Scientists like him prove the smartphone makes us more impatient, impulsive and narcissistic; it deprives us of empathy. Inner nervousness increases. The ability to interpret non-verbal signals deteriorates. «If we’re only wiring our brain with technology, we’re developing a deficiency to read non-verbal clues,» says brain researcher Small. The human brain actually developed through face-to-face interaction. «We lose human contact skills.»

Efficiency suffers. «It’s not an efficient task to constantly be scanning the environment for something more interesting. It’s like starting and stopping a car.»

There are consequences. «If we are always connected, we don’t rest,» says Small. «In order to be creative we need to daydream.» As we cease to do this, «our society becomes more and more autistic.»

Unable to be alone, we are constantly on our iPhone, Sherry Turkle claims in her book «Alone Together» – connected, yet alone. Turkle is a professor of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. «Those little devices are so psychologically powerful that they do not only change what we do, they change who we are.»

The smartphone is a crutch for many people. Real conversations can get out of hand, you may be at a loss for words. Or you might say words you cannot take back.

That is not the case in a digital exchange. Everything seems to be in hand. «We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control,» explains Turkle. «Human relationships are rich, and they are messy, and they are demanding. And we clean them up with technology.»

Devices like the iPhone help us in those areas of our daily lives where we are particularly vulnerable. They offer totally controllable relationships. «We’re afraid of intimacy and loneliness,» says Professor Turkle. «Technologies will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.»

The device creates three illusions, she says:

• that we can pay attention to whatever we happen to want;

• that someone is always listening to us, which is why we post on Twitter, Facebook und Instagram;

• that we never need to be alone.

The latter, in particular, changes our psyche. Nowadays, if you are alone, you immediately grab the device because you can’t stand solitude. It would, however, be important to abandon yourself to loneliness, says Turkle: « If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely.»

False emotional security warps the psyche. Once we realize that what is paying attention to us is only a digital thing, we go into mourning.

We hand children an iPhone to calm them down when they are nervous, but achieve the exact opposite, says Sherry Turkle. «Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.»

Turkle has analyzed how children react to parents who often fiddle with their cellphones. She was alarmed to find that the kids were suppressing their feelings when their moms or dads were holding their cellphones. The sad daughter would not cry when her mother picked her up from school, her cellphone pressed to her ear. The happy son would not laugh when his father was typing.

They know: the small screen is the big wall to the world. When the phone is in your hand everything else becomes irrelevant. «Be right with you, just a second,» says the father to his child on the slide – and goes on typing. Like an alcoholic and what is definitely his last drink.

So is it an addiction? At any rate, people who have forgotten their device at home get stressed out quite quickly. When they leave it somewhere they feel separation anxiety.

Like heroin and nicotine addicts iPhone users also experience the release of the happiness hormone dopamine. The active areas of the brain are those that relate to feelings, as if the smartphone were a friend, a family member, a lover.

As if it were love. This lover comes in several colors and with up to 256 gigabyte storage capacity.