friday, june 29, 2007 is a date that would change our lives forever. little were we aware of that back then, but it has. that day, apple would release their first iphone model. about a year and a half later, google’s android mobile operating system would materialize in the first available android smartphone, the t-mobile g1 (in the usa) / the htc dream (in the rest of the world) -and with that, the smartphone race started.
as we all know, that race continues to this day (and into the foreseeable future), with no clear winner: google leads in terms of market share (about 85% globally) or number of devices running android ($2.5 billion), whereas apple leads in terms of profitability ($26 billion last quarter just for their iphone division) or brand recognition (tops forbes’ annual look at the world’s most valuable brands for the ninth straight time).
in that race there have also been losers: blackberry, nokia, and motorola -to name but three. well, those and our attention spans. who finds it more difficult now than ever before to concentrate for a long time on a book, long article or even a long movie? there have even been studies (mostly on children) proving that over two hours of screen use per day is linked with adhd and behavioral problems. ouch.
attention spans and good old manners. because, whether you know it or not you have been phubbed:
‘phubbing’ -snubbing someone you’re talking to to look at a cell phone- may not be part of your everyday vocabulary, but it’s almost certainly part of your everyday life. just think about how often a conversation stalls because your friends (or you) have pulled out a phone and descended into an instagram black hole.
the problem is so prevalent that even the two major mobile operating system developers have come up with ways to help us keep tabs on our use of mobile devices (after the smartphones came the tablets, but that is a different story):
apple first introduced screen time in the fall of 2018 (with the release of ios 12) and has since made it available on all their operating systems: ios, ipados and macos
google first introduced digital wellbeing also in the fall of 2018 (with the release of android pie) and continues working to make it available throughout all their products
so, for about a year-and-a-half now we have been worrying about what excessive screen time does to us and, especially, to our young ones. but as nellie bowles wrote in the new york times recently, coronavirus ended the screen-time debate. screens won:
now I have thrown off the shackles of screen-time guilt. my television is on. my computer is open. my phone is unlocked, glittering. i want to be covered in screens. if I had a virtual reality headset nearby, i would strap it on.
i get it: we are anxious. we overworry. we want to know more. we need to know more in these most uncertain times. the problem i see is that before the coronavirus we were trying to establish clear, well-defined boundaries between our virtual and our real lives. now the question is if that is even an option, if there is such a thing anymore as ‘in real life’ (irl).
we tell ourselves that all this will pass, that we will go back to ‘normal’ (whatever that word means). and i definitely hope so. but i worry that we will get used to this new reality, one in which
we watch the world unfold from our living rooms on laptops, and tablets, and phones.
one in which we are more spectators than protagonists, one in which we are told what we can do and what not, one in which we are afraid to travel, one in which we look at each other with suspicious eyes, one in which we shop mostly online, one in which screens mediate our relationships.
some of us fought hard to stay away from social media, from ebooks, from digital magazines, from tv on demand, from fiber-optic connectivity. all that for this.