Try walking around the mall, on a crowded sidewalk, or through a university campus and there is one thing that stands out: people are engulfed in their phones. Whether they are moving from point A to B or simply hanging out, many people rarely ever look up from their screens. Parents of teenagers know this all too well as, even with friends over, they all are occupied by their phones.
A great benefit of this kind of technology is to connect the world. Communication is functionally instant. I can quickly look up the best way to prepare soil for planting a vegetable garden (we planted one earlier in the season but used a book…), text my daughter, or simply read a anthropology blog post for entertainment (here’s lookin’ at you kid!).
However, I will argue here that, while technology facilitates hyper-connectedness, it also produces a paradox and I will attempt to resolve it. Accessible technology that allows you to connect with people and tap into the news and information stream also hyper-individuates users, resulting in solipsism.
Solipsism is the notion that the only thing that exists is one’s own self and mind. Solipsism can be seen in Cartesian philosophy, where Descartes argues that the only knowledge one can have is that one’s mind exists–cogito ergo sum–“I think therefore I am” (Discourse on Method and the Meditations); so long as I think, I can know that I exist.
By connecting the world, disconnects from the external world. The phone becomes an extension of thought in a Cartesian sense and therefore, the only experience a person has is through this extension. Furthermore, the experiences a person has in this context are merely simulations of reality. Let me explain:
Imagine that you decide to go on the internet and look a photograph of a forest, or better yet, watch a YouTube video of a forest. While it may very well be a photo or video of a real forest, you are not experiencing a forest. You are merely looking at one. You may even hear some of the sounds captured (if it’s a video) but this is not the same as being there. You miss out on the “what is it like” portion of the forest. Even if you were to learn everything about that forest through video of photographs, you could never know what it is like to be in that forest without actually going. While failing to provide a real experience of the forest, social simulations are more of interest to anthropology.
Consider texting. While this is incredibly convenient, when communicating with someone this way, you are not engaging with the person as a they are. You are instead only getting a particular version of the person, out of the context provided by body language, intonation, and space. Would knowing that the person you are texting with is on the toilet or laying in bed next to their partner change the conversation? How about if it were face-to-face?
In these scenarios, when considering the phone as an extension of the self, it creates an environment in which only the user exists. The experiences had through the phone are approximations of reality and social interaction is contrived. The phone becomes an experience machine a la Robert Nozick (see: Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974).
This results in a paradox: smartphones both connect and disconnect people. However, the paradox is superficial at best and I think that what is actually going on is the illusion of connectedness. People feel more connected and while they have access to a simulated social life (through social media) they miss out on immediate social interaction with those in their kin groups, peer groups, etc. Texting and social media simulate social interaction but fails to deliver that which intimate social interaction can. This simulation has been critiqued by Placebo’s “Too Many Friends” and more recently, A Perfect Circle’s “Disillusioned”.
This has important anthropological implications and immediately reminds me of Durkheim, whose life’s thesis was to articulate the means by which people are integrated into social organization and the consequences of different levels of integration.
In Le Suicide (1897), Durkheim examines social causes for suicide and typologizes three kinds. Anomic suicide occurs when people lack sufficient social integration. Altruistic suicide is the result of hyperintegration. Finally, egoistic suicide occurs when people are insufficiently integrated into a community. This is of interest to my thesis here as the illusion of integration in fact results in less social solidarity. This manifests itself in increased rates of social anxiety, depression, insecurity, etc. In this case, mental health isn’t solely the consequence of genetics or some inborn traits, but a consequence of social circumstances.
Analyzing society and culture and its implication in negative health outcomes (including mental health) is a necessary step in effectively responding to these issues and correcting them. Blaming people’s own biology for their mental health is, in a sense, blaming the victim. Exculpating society as a contributing factor (sometimes the primary) in these health outcomes does not provide justice to people suffering and as a result, we will continue to rely on band-aid treatments (i.e. drugs) to make life better.
Maybe a little less screen time and a little more connection can result in a better world, with happier people. As A Perfect Circle says in “Disillusioned”:
“We’ve become disillusioned
So we dive like crows towards anything glittering
Time to put the silicon obsession down
Take a look around, find a way in the silence
Lie supine away with your back to the ground
Dis- and re-connect to the resonance now
You were never an island
Unique voice among the many in this choir
Tuning into each other, lift all higher”