It is undeniable that human civilization is facing a transition from an analogue to a digital world. In this article, we discuss how smartphones are accelerating this transition and the negative impact digitalization might have on the individual relationship with others and with the surrounding living environment.
The advent of smartphones is drastically changing the world of human relationships. Nowadays, you might not have a buck for a living; but one day for certain, you will somehow end up owning a smartphone.
To understand why smartphones have recently become so popular, we must consider the anthropological context in which we currently live. Our civilization is facing a historical transition: it is moving from an analogue reality towards a digital reality, and as consequence, we – as individuals – are also experiencing a drastic shift from “a material or concrete world” towards an “immaterial or virtual world”.
Let us now try to figure out how smartphones play a prominent role in this anthropological shift.
To directly focus on the matter, we may try to answer the following – maybe even bizarre – question: are smartphones household appliances?
Several electronic tools that we have at home can be defined as household appliances: washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves, even radios and televisions.
What do they all have in common?
First of all, they just lie somewhere in the apartment. There is no way to bring them along. Indeed, they solely belong to the “reality of the house”: they are physically part of our flats.
On such basis, we can already see how smartphones go beyond the definition of household appliance.
But there is more to say. Household appliances are devices made of mechanical gears, buttons to push, levers to pull, and eventually doors or small drawers to open.
Does any of this apply to our smartphones? It does not.
Smartphones are portable. This news alone is not sensational, given that even our outdated cell phones could be taken along as well. But this portability becomes relevant when coupled to the real innovation: a constant connection to the digital world.
Given the evident cultural transition mentioned at the outset of this article, our main means of mass communication (which traditionally used to be household appliances, like radios and televisions) are changing accordingly. In fact, while a television is still a concrete object made of wires, antennas and cathode tubes – indeed it is part of a material world like our bodies are – the same cannot be easily said about smartphones. Smartphones are merely interfaces between the physical and the digital world: if we think about it, when we are watching their screens, we barely realize that we are in front of – that we are actually looking at – a screen. We hardy consider our smartphones as “things”. If televisions suffered from the defect of being yet part of a physical reality, smart phones are just doors to another world, which requires a different way of living.
What different way of living are we referring to?
I would like to report a personal experience, which hopefully will clarify the point I am trying to make.
One evening last summer I had dinner with a group of friends. We were sitting in a restaurant by the seashore. All of us were eagerly waiting for the first course to be served. When I saw the waitress approaching with our dishes – since I was starving – I lowered my eyes to the plate and held my knife and fork. I could already taste the food on my tongue.
Now imagine my surprise when, looking up again at the table attracted by the smell of delicious delicacies, I heard clicking; I saw people around me shooting their food with their smartphones, indeed trying to capture the best picture to share on their digital profiles.
We should try to analyse the situation.
Food is tangible. It is meant to play a role in the physical world. And the role is simple: to feed our bodies.
However, at the beginning of the new millennium, can we still claim that the prominent role of food is to feed our bodies?
At this point, we must jump back to the opening of this discussion. The claim that we are transitioning from a material to an immaterial world tacitly means that we are also moving from “the reality of bodies” to “the reality of minds”.
It is undeniable that with the expansion of digital platforms, our bodies are becoming obsolete. First of all, we started with the digitalization of our jobs. Nowadays, we spend innumerable hours working at our computers, writing or replying to emails, filling electronic sheets and analysing data. The term “data” is itself not materially quantifiable: not every intellectual product we make has a corresponding paper copy.
Indeed, in a working environment, some of these aspects might be even positive and desirable.
But what happens when we apply this logic to social relationships, to human interaction with nature, or even to human interaction with our own living environment?
Another personal experience might illustrate this point.
One evening last winter I opened the door and walked into an apartment. I quickly took off my jacket and I left my bag on a chair. Did I have dinner?
I had some business left to do. I turned on my laptop while lying flat on my bed. This might have lasted for hours. I couldn’t tell. When the work was over, I switched over to some TV series. Then it was time to sleep.
Of course, I was at home. It is interesting to realize that I could have been anywhere else: I did not take a look at the portrait of me and my friends on the upper shelf, I barely touched the surface of my desk. But definitely, I was even more alarmed when I realized that I could have spent hours outside of my body without even noticing it.
We have lost contact with our physical environments. Or perhaps more accurately: we have lost interest in our physical environments. In fact, the entire attention is now focused on a new conception of “home”: social networks, and smartphones are the key for a constant access to them.
If we now move back to the first example, we would understand that taking pictures of food instead of eating it, is the proper reaction we should expect. In an era in which digitalization is taking over, we primarily care about our immaterial (or virtual) reality. Continuing with this line of thought, taking a photo of a dessert is more adequate than tasting it. We need to embellish our new homes, look after of our virtual portraits because this is the realm of minds. Now that our minds are the places where we belong, bodies are becoming outdated.
However, there might be consequences to face.
A first consideration implies human capability to physically sense reality. In simple words, reality is first of all a sensation. We are aware of our existence because we can feel our body. Human experience is primarily the outcome of our body being in the world. The senses of touching, hearing, tasting, and smelling are the main tools we have to denote, define, and finally categorize all the elements of reality. This is how we build up a conscience and how we develop cognitive skills.
In this regard, is touching a screen to zoom into our partner’s face detail the same as coming closer to their face in real life? Not really, since the latter would also include other features, such as hearing their breath or smelling their hair.
Following this line of thought, our way of building civilizations has been based on physical interaction. It is not surprising that in the expression “You need some human contact”, human contact is indeed a synonym of “physical contact”. Education is based on skills of mutual comprehension, such as empathy, solidarity and loyalty, which can be properly understood only when people spend time together.
Nowadays, what we often see are ‘dead’ bodies together, but with active minds spending time somewhere else. Doubtless, we are becoming incapable of sharing constructive time together, since our minds are constantly dislocated by smartphones.
The historical change we are experiencing will not simply halt. However, during this transition we should remember that we are still made of flesh and bones: our organic essence will always require and respond to certain sensorial and material principles, which are fundamental parts of our existence.
Received: 18.01.19, Ready: 21.02.19, Editors: RG, RG.