How smartphones steal fleeting moments of life

How smartphones steal fleeting moments of life

Summary: With all eyes on the mobile industry, we forget just how much these devices deprive us of key moments in our lives.


All eyes are on the mobile industry this month as Microsoft acquires Nokia's phone business, Apple prepares to launch a new iPhone and iOS 7, Google prepares its "Kit Kat" version of Android and BlackBerry awaits its final journey.

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.

To paraphrase the late George Carlin, they are the digital equivalent of "the place to put our stuff."

Last week I wrote about the lengths I went through to ensure mobile data connectivity for my smartphone in a foreign country when I was on vacation with my wife. 

And it occured to me that I probably spent far too much time staring at my Lumia 920's display rather than enjoying my vacation.

To put this in perspective, my wife actually sketched a picture on her tablet of me sitting down at a bench inside Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. I was going through my work email that had accumulated that afternoon.


Now, I remember it feeling like only five minutes. I don't know how long it took for my wife to sketch that picture but even if it took just five minutes, that's five minutes of my life I will never get back.

I was surrounded by priceless works of art by some of the great masters like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, but instead I was staring at my phone, ignoring life around me.

I was for five minutes detached from humanity.

How much of my life am I actually wasting staring at these damn devices? I was on vacation, dammit. I could have caught up with my work emails on my laptop later in the evening when we returned to our hotel room.

I mean, it's not like people were actually expecting instantaneous responses from me. They knew I was on vacation. It was I, not my workplace, that was imposing this ridiculous need to be avaliable instantanously to the world — and to be fed with information.

I began thinking about all of this when the legendary Sci-Fi Grand Master Frederik Pohl died this week, at the age of 94. 

Unlike Asimov, Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, I didn't have an emotional attachment to Frederik Pohl. His works, while substantial and spanning multiple decades, never particularly inspired me.

Pohl wasn't a classic storyteller like the other Grand Masters he's been grouped with. The guy was a skilled literary agent, and much like myself, he was a magazine editor and knew how to work with other well-known writers of the period like Lester Del Rey, and how to compile some really good anthologies.

So I wasn't a Fred Pohl "Fan" per se. I respected him, but I have not read or finished most of his published works.

I thought about whether or not I would or could eulogize him. But I hadn't read enough of his works to really put together a good picture of the themes he wrote about. His works were pretty much all over the map.

And then I remembered one particular work of his from 1976, Man Plus, which was Hugo-nominated and got the Nebula Award. 

I had read Man Plus many years ago. It was about an astronaut who is sent to Mars because Earth is facing an apocalypse and humanity now has to learn how to live on other planets in order to survive.

Because the atmosphere of Mars is decades from becoming breathable via "terraforming", the astronaut's brain is placed into a robotic body that is augmented with special abilities so that he can survive in the harsh Martian environment.

The consequences for the astronaut are severe. Because of his transformation into this cybernetic being, he becomes more and more detached from humanity. Instead, he becomes something completely other than human.

While human beings are far from being able to create robotically-enhanced versions of ourselves as in Pohl's novel, we are very much going down the path of becoming detached from humanity, simply by using devices like smartphones and tablets.

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 Pohl predicts in Man Plus. But as this recently published YouTube video (nearly 20 million views since late August) makes clear, we're well on our way to full detachment  — 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.

Are smartphones and mobile devices detaching us from humanity and wasting precious moments of our lives? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Mobility


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Excellent!!

    I thought the exact same thing on coming back from my vacation this summer. Except for taking pictures, we actually had to enforce a no-phone policy with our teenagers and ourselves for most of the vacation and allowed ourselves to use them only on the bus ride back to our hotel. We weren't perfect about it, but we did reconnect with each other more.

    Society is becoming more disconnected and more isolated from each other, and that's not a benefit to any one or all of us.
    • And safety issues...

      ...Here could be a tag line for an Apple commercial:

      Everyday, more people kill other people while texting on their iPhones than any other phone on the planet.
      • A truly idiotic statement!

        Being the dominant smartphone.......... isn't it inevitable? These are the kinds of mindless statements I expect from our politicians...........not from intelligent people........ But then intelligence is not required to post here!
        • Or....

          Satire, perhaps....
          Frank 2u
    • Brings new meaning to the ancient term

      Crackberry. It's only gotten worse and we are training our kids as well. :-(
      Actually, what am I doing here???
  • Frederik Pohl

    I think Pohl's years as editor of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow are what made him really great. He's the guy that gave us Niven, Saberhagen, Laumer and no doubt many other current really great authors. Heck, he even got Doc Smith and Van Vogt to come out of retirement!
    • the Pohlster

      Thanks, Bill4, for a cogent comment. I love all those writers, especially Saberhagen. Pohl was one of the great insiders, a mover and shaker in SF. He will be sorely missed.

      As for you, Jason, you make a good point. Perhaps one reason for the constant photo-shooting (now that we can, easily) is that people are afraid that life will pass them by without leaving enough traces. It's kind of like a social Heisenberg principle: you can't capture an event without affecting it. Combine that with the compulsion to share every heartbeat with your friends on Facebook or Twitter and you've got a situation that would appear strange indeed to our predecessors. Were they happier just leading their lives or have we found a better way by recording everything for a posterity that could care less?

      I say, "Take your phone with you, but leave it in your pocket if you're having fun."
  • "detached from humanity"

    Absolutely true, Jason. Someone out in Montana (for example) should start a vacation experience where phones--and any other electronical gizmos--are surrendered when you check in and are not accessible until you check out. That would allow folks to enjoy nature, and each other, without all that stuff getting in the way. No cell. No wi-fi. No TV. No radio. Nothing "modern". Kind of like a colonic for the mind. They may have to provided rooms with padded walls to prevent some people from hurting themselves the first few days, but I'll bet that after a week or so, the vacationers would be feeling better about themselves and the world in general.
    • Von Trapps as an example

      The ski lodge started and run by the Von Trapp family (of "Sound of Music fame") for years didn't have any kind of technology in their rooms, not even phones. There was a phone in the lobby if you needed one, but if you went there, you went there to ski and to be with other people. A few years back, they finally started getting with the times: each room now has a radio.
    • "Kind of like a colonic for the mind".

      Well said..!
    • "detached from humanity"

      It would most likely be made illegal. They don't want us too far from our electronic "dog collars" for too long. Smartphones aren't made for people, they are made for people control.

      During times of universal deceit, telling the truth
      becomes a revolutionary act.
      -- George Orwell

      There are two ways to be fooled.
      One is to believe what isn't true;
      the other is to refuse to believe what is true.
      Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
  • that's not technology; that's you

    technology is an amplifier; you - if you self aware - choose what to amplify with it. As with books and alcohol and television and the hobby of growing prize rhubarb, your smartphone offers you the chance to connect to the world or to step out of it. are you present in the moment more or less when you're taking a photograph of a flower rather than looking at the whole garden? is that more to do with the phone or camera you use - or with whether you care about it as a feat of technology where you master ISO and aperture to get the image you want or as a way to preserve the moment when you saw the flower? I might read emails rather than looking at the scenery as we travel, because staying on top of email means I can take the time to travel. As long as I mindfully choose what to do and when, I still win. And if I don't mindfully choose, do I blame the phone - or myself?
    • Lucid and well composed

      but I think you are missing the point. What if the end effect, regardless of where you can point the finger or how "logically" you can "debate" it, is less face-to-face and less indirect (I'm letting you have texting etc here) communication and contact? Does it matter? I don't know, but Perlow here is making the case that it does. Still, what you say is from a cool perspective.

      What makes me think that you actually do get what this author is saying?
  • You do realize Jason...

    ...that these devices do have OFF buttons...don't you?

    "Are smartphones and mobile devices detaching us from humanity and wasting precious moments of our lives?"

    The answer? Absolutely yes.

    I was watching an interview with the founder of Twitter (another useless "social networking" wasteland), Jack Dorsey, and boy oh boy, is that kid a raging introvert.

    He thinks he can run for, and be, the Mayor of New York City simply by using social networking. He really believes that he does not need to interact with people face-to-face to be the Mayor. Good luck with that one.

    The sad thing about today's young folks is that most lack interpersonal actually TALKING to another human being.

    Texting, Farcebook, Twitter, and the like, are breeding generations of people who have no clue in how to deal with others on a personal, verbal, level.

    Nothing but a hoard of brain-dead people walking around, heads down, thumbs (and brains) glued to tiny electronic devices, "communicating" with their playmates.

    Most are totally incapable of WRITING a proper English (or whatever native tongue) language sentence...especially with a pen or pencil.

    So time you and your wife go out for some entertainment...leave that devices home. You just might actually enjoy yourself, and learn something new in the process.
    • Pointless labeling

      Calling someone a "raging introvert", in addition to being something of an oxymoron, is also counterproductive. I don't think we breed introversion any more than high school football creates extroverts. They may tend to attract one or the other, but hardly create them.

      Extroverts tend to tweet more, and have busier Fbook pages.

      Introverts might be given to lengthy though out blog posts about thngs and ideas.

      Each to their own.
      • Hey Ace...

        ...get a life.

        Back under your bridge.
      • As opposed to being just a moron?

        "Calling someone a "raging introvert", in addition to being something of an oxymoron..."

        Sort of like vous? Or are you a narcissist with your "selfie" stuck right there next to your name?
        • Now, now boys ...

          ... play nice!
    • Android is the dominant smart phone

      Actually the numbers show that far more people Android phones than iPhones. Just another useless tidbit of information for the infornation age.

      BTW IT_Fella, your sentence berating othersn for not being able to write a "proper English language sentence," was riddled with grammar errors. Three dots in a row aren't a way to break a sentence into sections. They're used to indicate a quote was either continued after the section being quoted or began earlier than the quote used. It can also indicate there is missing information in the middle of a quote. And there is a space after those three dots. Also "most" is not a proper collective noun or a mass noun. So the way you used the word is improper. It's not specific enough to impart knowledge to the listener. "Most don't," is the invariable end result of using sloppy terms like "most" as a noun. "Most" what "don't" what? Those who live in the land of bad grammar really shouldn't pretend they know what they're doing because almost no one gets it right every time including me. But I can recognize the glaring errors in your sentence where you slam others for using bad grammar. How ironic, n'est pas?
  • Thanks for pointing to that video

    It certainly produced a minute of self-reflection if nothing else. I've always been the one with tech, taking photos and videos. In some ways it was self-serving as it allowed me my own space if you will. I have been in plenty of situations like the party where everyone is behind a screen recording the moment for ever more. For some of us with memories more akin to a sieve this is the best way though, look back in 2yrs and you can hardly remember but go to the video archive and the emotions of the moment are brought back.

    Saying that though, there are times when taking the tech out with you can bring you closer. I was out with my partner at the weekend walking the mutt so we decided to have a photo competition which lasted through the walk and afterwards. That most definitely brought us together so there are times when tech isn't such a bad guy.
    Little Old Man