I finally got an iPhone last week. My old cell phone was so many generations behind the curve that it had become an item of public curiosity whenever I pulled it out. The truth is, I didn’t pull it out all that often anyway. We don’t have cell phone coverage in my neighborhood on Whidbey Island, so I only use it when I go to the city. And it was, after all, a phone, not a tool with a thousand applications. I still find it amazing, in fact, that we can pull living voices out of thin air, in real time, speaking from any place on the planet to any other place on the planet, from the summit of Mt. Everest to the wilds of New York City. But already, that fact has become old news. I didn’t wait this long to get on the smart phone bandwagon because I’m techno-phobic. I know what these tools are good for, and I use them daily. I’m using them right now to write and share this blog post. There is no doubt that the sharing and spreading of ideas is easier this way. But for the longest time I've gotten a “No” every time I thought about making the shift to a smart phone. The questions that matter most to me when evaluating the merits of new tech gadgets aren’t the usual ones, like, “Will it make me faster and more efficient?”, or, “Does it have really cool applications?” Instead I ask, “Will it improve the actual quality of my life? Will it make me a better and more caring person?”
I have no doubt that I will use my new iPhone to good effect – I already am. But will my life improve as a result? That’s a very different question. As a mindfulness teacher, I know there is much more at stake here than speed and convenience. We humans are on a fast arc from being the toolmakers of our evolutionary past to becoming mere tools of our latest tools, no longer able to imagine our lives without them, and remarkably helpless and disoriented in their absence.
Our computing systems may be doubling in speed every two years, while halving in price, as Moore’s Law predicted. The problem is that our nervous systems are not undergoing a similarly radical expansion in capacity. We are getting way too far out over our skis. Applying still more speed to the problems at hand may not be an intelligent antidote to too much speed already.
It is also difficult to feel grounded when our position on the planet has become psychologically irrelevant and arbitrary. In a time of ecological decline, we need more contact, not less, with the places we physically inhabit. We are living, as one Seattle University student recently put it, “a life of chronic dislocation. Our minds are never in the same place as our bodies.” This is a bigger problem than being merely distracted. Once our minds have abandoned our bodies, we have literally gone “out of our minds”. Not only do we become tone deaf to the body’s needs when the mind is elsewhere, but we become functionally illiterate about our place in the biological fabric of life that actually sustains us. Next time you’re genuinely hungry, try eating the image of that cake you’ve just Googled onto your screen.
I think I’m going to turn off my computer now and go for a walk. I need some fresh air. I want to see that full moon that’s rising out of the fir forest. I need to feel some of that blustery winter wind on my face. And I’ll definitely leave my iPhone behind. Right now, I don’t need it getting between me and the place I love.