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  • Life Without Smartphones

    Posted by David Foster on January 5th, 2020 (All posts by )

    A college instructor, concerned about how poorly his students were doing in the philosophy class he was teaching, tried an experiment:  for extra credit, students could give up their phones for nine days and write about living without them. Twelve students, about a third of the class, took him up on the offer.

    Without their phones, most of my students initially felt lost, disoriented, frustrated, and even frightened. That seemed to support the industry narrative: look how disconnected and lonely you’ll be without our technology. But after just two weeks, the majority began to think that their cell phones were in fact limiting their relationships with other people, compromising their own lives, and somehow cutting them off from the “real” world. 

    See some of the student comments at the link.  Note that ten of the 12 students said their phones had been compromising their ability to have real-world relationships.  And in response to a student’s comment about safety concerns when phone-less, the instructor said:

    What’s revealing is that this student and others perceived the world to be a very dangerous place. Cell phones were seen as necessary to combat that danger. The city in which these students lived has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and almost no violent crime of any kind, yet they experienced a pervasive, undefined fear.

    For perspective, though, we should consider:  How would students in say, the 1950s through the 1980s have responded if they had been temporarily denied access to dorm or apartment phones and also to pay phones?  Because since smartphones became common, pay phones have largely disappeared, and I’d imagine that dorm and apartment phones are pretty rare as well.

    I’d hazard a guess that 1950s-1980s students who were denied access to conventional telephony would have felt somewhat disconnected, but not nearly so much as present-day students without their smartphones.

    When the telegraph was first invented, a journalist marveled that “This extraordinary discovery leaves…no elsewhere…it is all here.”

    As I’ve noted before, it seems that if the wired communications reduced the sense of elsewhere, it seems that wireless communications reduces the sense of the here and now.


    5 Responses to “Life Without Smartphones”

    1. Bill Brandt Says:

      I remember something Julia Dryfus said when asked if she’d like a revival of Seinfeld” “I’d like to do it but we couldn’t/ The restaurant scenes would have everyone on smartphones”

      I call them adult pacifiers.

      Really an amazing creation to think you hold in your hand a supercomputer that can access anything in the world, and they are addictive.

      They do impede real relationships, but I don’t see them as a bulwark against a dangerous world.

    2. Mike K Says:

      When I was in medical school, we took notes by writing an outline of the lecture. A Chinese classmate took his notes in Chinese characters. He said it was faster. I developed a theory that writing aided memory. I would write notes, then outline them, then outline the outline. Since I was first in my class all four years, I think it worked. Medicine is largely memory and pattern recognition. I taught students for 15 years before finally retiring. They no longer take notes and many do not attend class. The medical school has an internal network and all lecturers put their lectures on line.

      I remember how students, usually weak students, used to underline or highlight lines in textbooks. That did not work very well.

      In Math and Engineering, I found working out problems was the best way to learn and remember. Engineering is quite different from Medicine as a learning field.

      I see no role for smart phones or laptops as a memory aid.

      As part of my prevention strategy for senility, I am starting to go back and restudy algebra and calculus. I hope to get to differential equations again. None of it will involve electronic devices,.

    3. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

      Jonathan Haidt has a lot to say about this in The Coddling of the American Mind. There is more than just anecdote that smartphones hamper social development, and he pinpoints it to the first age cohort that had constant phone use beginning in middle school, the (high school) Class of 2014. 2014 and following classes have higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders and a higher suicide rate, especially the girls. He believes this is what causes the “snowflake” phenomenon, that people cannot bear to hear things that contradict them or criticise them, because they actually do live in a world where they can be socially destroyed without defense by the comments people make.

      He notes that the people who work in Silicon Valley sharply limit the use of their own children’s phones.

    4. D Says:

      > As part of my prevention strategy for senility, I am starting to go back and restudy algebra and calculus. I hope to get to differential equations again. None of it will involve electronic devices,.<

      I'm doing something similar. I buy Minolta XG – 1/7/9/M film cameras($2-$10/each) and repair them. The service manual is available online. As a doctor you might find the small spaces required for repair of interest(little screws, springs etc.). And you do not need much space or tools.

    5. Kirk Parker Says:


      What happens to the cameras after you repair them?

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