How smartphones steal fleeting moments of life

With all eyes on the mobile industry, we forget just how much these devices deprive us of key moments in our lives.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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