Are smartphones stealing away our lives?

Summary:For better of worse, we're living in a digital world. Jason Perlow and Matt Baxter-Reynolds debate the consequences.

Jason Perlow

Jason Perlow

Yes

or

No

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Best Argument: Yes

67%
33%

Audience Favored: Yes (67%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

They steal the moments we value most

Jason Perlow: Smartphones have become so ingrained in our daily lives that it's difficult for many of us to consider going about our days without them at our side. As an industry, we are completely obsessed with mobile devices, like prized pets. The newer, the faster, the more aesthetic, the higher resolution, the increasing capacity.

As I wrote back in February , "Lifestreams" experienced on today's smartphones and other mobile devices are replacing traditional computing experiences and in many cases intruding on actual life experiences.

And while they give us unprecedented access to information at speeds that were incomprehensible even a decade ago, they do detach us from humanity and they steal the moments from us that we value the most: Time spent with our loved ones and friends.

We've not yet evolved into brains implanted in robot bodies, as the recently departed SF master Frederik Pohl predicts in his 1976 novel Man Plus. But as this recently published YouTube video (nearly 24 million views since late August) makes clear, we're well on our way to full detachment from humanity — especially if you consider the future in wearable technologies like Google Glass .

I'm certainly not advocating that we eschew mobile technology. As much as they steal moments from us, they also provide us with the ability to save time so we can live our lives more efficiently.

However, as a culture we need to learn how to recognize what the high-value experiences in our lives actually are, what we should really be paying attention to, and when we should be paying attention to them.

Digital and real-life relationships are converging

Matt Baxter-Reynolds: My thing, the reason why I get up and go to work each day, is that I'm fascinated by how technology changes individuals, and how society changes as a result.

Jason's piece on which this debate is based --  How smartphones steal fleeting moments of life  -- is a fascinating look at one side of what these devices mean to one's "digital life".

People fall into two camps in this argument. One camp -- my camp -- is that digital relationships and real-life relationships are levelling off and becoming the same. The other camp is that there is an inherent *specialness* in real-life that digital life can never replace.

My job today, as ZDNet's self-appointed "technology sociologist", is to prove to you all that my camp -- that digital and real-life relationships are converging and will one day be indistinguishable -- is the right one. And if it is the right one, the smartphone becomes an essential tool, access to one becomes embedded in what we actually understand to be the human expeirence, and can never be "stealing away our lives."

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Welcome

    To our weekly Great Debate series. Today, Jason Perlow and Matt Baxter-Reynolds face off over the power of smartphones. Are you ready?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    All set

    I'm ready.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Me too

    I'm prepared.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Problems, problems

    What's the problem with smartphones? How does it manifest itself?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    The fast track to nitwit

    So, the issue isn't so much smartphones per se but our increasing reliance on mobile technology combined with an irresistible cocktail of social networking in which there are incentives for constant participation or sharing of information as well as incessant information "snacking".

    Basically the problem comes down to what Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter has termed the "lifestream" and what I have referred to as "The fast track to nitwit."  

    In summary, the smartphone/social networking cocktail combined with this penchant for information snacking is a perfect storm for artificially created autism spectrum disorders and it makes antisocial behavior, in the form of a non-stop feedback loop the new accepted norm.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Staying focused

    Jason's argument is that by accessing one's digital life through a smartphone, you're missing out on all the good stuff that's happening in the real-world. This presupposes a position that everything in the real life is better by definition because it is "real" and not "digital".

    The actual problem with smartphones is that is can damage the user's ability to focus and remain on task, but that's not necessarily what we're talking about here.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Morals

    But isn't technology morally neutral?  It's how we use it, surely?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Society sets the standards

    Technology may be morally neutral but society as a whole establishes the norms. Once we decide collectively as a society what is socially acceptable to do, then there's no turning back. For example, in the 1920s radio became a popular form of entertainment which started to displace various social activities. In the 1950's television re-enforced this and the "Boob Tube" became part of our lexicon.

    The move towards Personal Computing starting in the early 1980s added additional societal detachment -- by comparison radio and TV could be enjoyed in groups, whereas the PC and online interaction was by nature a single user activity. With smartphones and mobile devices we've extended that introversion and ersatz social activity to anywhere there's a wireless data connection.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    We control technology

    Great way to put it, but my view is that we as as society have intentionally built post-PC devices (smartphones and tablets) specifically as devices optimized to be relationship-centric and access one's digital life in a always-available, always-connected manner.

    Therefore, they're not really neutral *per se* -- they're doing what we want them to do.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The tipping point

    When did our gadgets start to create these issues? What was the tipping point? The mobile phone, the PDA or the smartphone or something else?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Smartphones bringing out the worst in us

    So while we can certainly point towards societal detachment with the introduction of radio and television, those were only consumptive technologies rather than interactive ones.

    The widespread use of the PC and the rise of online services and the use of the Internet outside of academia was probably one tipping point, and the mobile phone along with texting was another one. Once these technologies were combined into the smartphone, the perfect device for bringing out the worst of our inner antisocial qualities was born.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    The iPhone

    It was the convergence of digital social networking services reaching a point of maturity and mass, combined with the introduction of the iPhone. This was the tipping point that created the post-PC era. The post-PC era is defined by relationship-centric computing, digital life, etc.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A benefit?

    Don't smartphones make us more connected, not less? Surely the benefits outweigh the problems?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    In moderation

    One could argue that any technology when applied in moderation is beneficial. Becoming connected to other people is always a good thing, but there are qualitative aspects of making connections. I'm having a hard time believing that Facebook, Instagram, Vine or Twitter are high-value experiences compared to say, email or a VOIP/Video conferencing session between colleagues or distant family members.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    A benefit

    Yes. To reiterate my position, my view is the "only" reason they exist is to connect us through to the people and things that we love.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Other tech devices: Good or bad?

    Is it just smartphones that are affecting us? What about PCs, tablets, games consoles?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    They have their moments

    Smartphones and Tablets just so happen to be the latest and greatest tool for freebasing social networking and information snacking -- eventually, there will be other avenues for doing this, such as through wearable computing devices.

    Game consoles and PC gaming, interestingly enough, are more of a high-value experience particularly if they involve multiplayer games. It's certainly a more complex form of social interaction than of the standard quick share/quick consume model of social networking.

    However, too much gaming and staying inside too much is not great for us as a society either.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Yes they do

    The value comes from the services that we access and the relationships that connect through them. Any technology can do this, so yes, PCs, games consoles, etc.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Gadgets for good or evil

    What's the broader impact of our obsession with our gadgets? Long term what does it do to society, for good and for ill?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    The age factor

    Those who have lived through the evolution of mobile computing can still remember an age when we didn't have these devices and still have the capability to "turn off", but even so it's still difficult to do for those people, including myself. What is most concerning is the generation of people who are growing up with smartphones and cannot remember life without them, or never knew a time when this form of behavior was socially unacceptable

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    They're not gadgets

    I think it's dangerous to talk about "gadgets." These are not little PDAs that only geeks got anything out of. Smartphones have minimal barriers to entry in every sense, yet give access to unimaginable power to their users, throughout all aspects of human society.

    Take someone living in an African village with no main power, no mains water. If they have a phone, they can access education services, health services, etc. They can build relationships and change their lives.

    We've built systems that create greater human interconnectedness than anything that's gone before. They're not geeky gadgets!

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Keeping it under control

     Apart from wearing tin foil hats, what can we do to ameliorate the impact of smartphones and other gadgetry?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Monitoring needed

    So I'm not advocating neo-Luddism of any kind here. I think that we can put mechanisms into our technology that tells us that we need to take a "time out." Just like the fitness sensors that we have built into our phones and bluetooth devices that count our calories and miles walked, it would also be possible to track how much we are using our technology and create thresholds which inform us that we need to take a rest.

    We also need to tell people when they are acting in a socially unacceptable manner and try not to be part of the problem ourselves.

    Additionally, as my colleague James Kendrick points out, human beings just plain need to get out and be with other people more.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Hard to focus

    There are, for sure, real problems in this brave new world.

    One I struggle with is finding it hard to focus, and/or being too easily distracted. Other's have written about this. There are other problems in that certain types of crime is easier, bullying is easier, kids are marinated daily in a way of being with others that their parents don't understand. There are many more.

    It's those darker aspects that we need to understand as a society, then take that understanding and us all adjust and change in line with the technology that we're building.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Wearable computing

    What about wearable computing (Google Glass, smart watches and more)? Will the next generation of gadgets make things better or worse?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No checks

    Wearables will allow people to be antisocial in a nearly undetectable manner. In my opinion that makes it worse, because nobody on the other side of the eyepiece will truly know whether they are being paid attention to or not. This is pretty much the ultimate evolution, short of a cybernetic implant or the mythical technological singularity, of an artificially created autism spectrum disorder.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    It's a good thing

    Anything we do now will be about improving the interconnectedness. If you're like me, you'll think it's a good thing.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Keeping it under control

    What's the best way of using technology without it taking over your life?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Just turn it off

    So as I have said in earlier writings, we are becoming a society of anxious, sleep-deprived, irritable stress-heads. Add the "lifestreams" to this mix and we're all at risk of becoming attention challenged and socially inept as well.

    My earlier advice is simply to turn the devices off and engage in basic social activities more often. Cook with people and have discussions, without your devices at the dinner table. Engage in group exercise like team sports, or even engage in solitary exercise to clear your mind and to meditate. And while long-form reading of books and newspapers is not a social activity per se, it stimulates the brain differently than social networking services do.

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Take charge

    The one thing most of us can do, I think, is look to gain focus and maintain control over distractions.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Deja vu?

    Isn't this something we've been wrestling with since we invented writing, and the wheel?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    No, it's a new challenge

    No, I fundamentally disagree with this. Writing and the Wheel created modern society. What we've been debating today has been actively dismantling it

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Yes, it's societal change

    Yes. This is classic "technology leads to sociological change". All technology is like that -- that's why we invent it.

    You're talking about "high technology" here. But technology has always sought to improve the human experience, even if the path through has been sketchy. (Technology here can be anything -- the wheel, four-field crop location, a national health service, etc.)

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The human factor

    Is technology making us better or worse at being human?

    Posted by Steve Ranger

    Brings out the best and the worst

    It can enable us reach out to people in ways that were never possible before, but at the same time, it is also extremely capable of bringing out the absolute worst of humanity as well. Anything that enhances the human condition is a positive thing, but anything that displaces basic forms of human interaction will potentially destroy us, if we are to believe E.M. Forster, who predicted the rise of the Internet in 1909 with his short story "The Machine Stops."

    Jason Perlow

    I am for Yes

    Brings out the best

    Better. Much, much better, in every way.

    Matt Baxter-Reynolds

    I am for No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks

    I'm sure you'll agree that this is a very interesting question and the debater's handled both sides with authority. Stay tuned on Wednesday for the final arguments and Thursday when I post my final verdict. In the meantime, check out the comments and add your own. And don't forget to vote. Until next week...

    Posted by Steve Ranger

Closing Statements

We're getting disconnected

Jason Perlow

I don't believe we need conclusive scientific evidence that over-use of these devices and a tendency to replace traditional means of social interaction with social networking tools disconnects us from society and may also retard or harm our overall developmental skills, particularly if we are exposed to them at an early age.

Those of us who already have difficulties in social situations or have Autism Spectrum Disorders and associated co-morbid conditions such as ADHD and ADD should be making an extra effort to get out and be with people, and not become recluses with our tech toys.

The signs are certainly out there. You only need to walk into a restaurant to see supposedly mature adults at tables mindlessly texting or "liking" and sharing rather than engaging in focused conversation with each other.

You only need to go to a public park and watch people stare at their tablets or phones rather than take in a beautiful summer's day watching the marvels of nature or to people watch. Or ignoring priceless works of art displayed at a museum, instead fixated on their business calendars and corporate emails when they are on vacation.

You only need to observe your own children at family gatherings who would rather be texting peers of their own age -- frequently in the same room with each other -- than having to communicate verbally with anyone. 

Is this the society we want for ourselves? For our children? Or are we doomed to transform our great civilization into a sea of stupid?

We're making the right connections

Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Looking back over my esteemed opponent's argument, the same issue keeps coming out. The message he's giving is that there is something inherently "anti-social" or "unsocial" about how connections are made on these devices.

This is a point that I completely disagree with. Over time we will see a normalization whereby real life and digital relationships converge and become indistinguishable, and I don't see this as a bad thing. It creates more ways in which we can interact, share ideas, and communicate, not  fewer. Why should baking cakes with granny in her kitchen in real-life be more worthy than spending an hour talking to her over Skype on a bus ride home.

This debate was inspired by an article written by my esteemed opponent in which he describes an art gallery visit where he was looking a  smartphone rather than looking around at the works of art that surrounded him. He lamented the distraction -- to me, that should have been something to be celebrated. He got to enjoy the artworks, and alleviate stressors related to needing to answer work emails, and spend time with his wife. It seems to me that in that moment he found a win-win, not a win-lose.

Convergence at a cost

Steve Ranger

Jason makes a strong argument -- backed by a fair deal of anecdotal evidence -- that our always-connected culture is having some very negative consequences on our ability to maintain and sustain meaningful relationships.

Matt also delivers some good points about how our "real" and digital relationships are headed toward a convergence. But just because technology pushes and pulls us in particular direction doesn't mean we're prepared to manage or even appreciate all the risks involved.

Besides, we would rather bake cakes with grandma than Skype with her.

I'll go with the crowd on this one: Jason gets the win.

Topics: Great Debate

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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