OP-ED | Of Smartphones & Middle Age
To app or not to app. That is the question.
At least that’s the question for this skeptical, 50-something English teacher.
Apple’s recently released iPhone 6 is no doubt of interest to the more than 60 percent of the U.S. population that now owns a smartphone. Meanwhile, I plod along with my non-touch-screen, imitation-Blackberry dumbphone. (I’d probably still have my original Nokia mini-brick if it weren’t for an unscheduled beverage bath.)
I’m such a dinosaur, I’m even a minority in my own age group:
But times change, and sometimes even technological skeptics change with those times. So I find myself actually contemplating the purchase of a smart phone.
Granted, I don’t take this decision lightly, given my documented circumspection regarding the effects of smartphones.
For example, I’ve been teaching high school English for more than two decades, and I’ve personally witnessed the decline in voluntary reading among teenagers. Recent studies back this up.
Even so, personal technology can also encourage reading, as “researchers also investigated the effects of e-reading, which appear to be gaining traction as a substitute for paper books, even among kids.”
Smartphones, therefore, have not killed reading. At least not yet.
“Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls, and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss,“ according to Scientific American.
Moreover, these screens “prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
Another effect of excessive smartphone use could be memory loss.
“The constant, restless fingering of the phone’s shiny surface, this filling of every microscopic time-gap in the fabric of the day, is an issue,” explains Psychology Today.
In one experiment, “people in their early seventies listened to a story and then were asked to recall as much of it as they could. They then either just sat engaging in ‘wakeful resting’ for 10 minutes or they played a spot-the-difference computer game. Those who had rested for the ten minutes after learning the story remembered a lot more of it half an hour later than those who had played the game. Amazingly, and more importantly, these effects lasted a full 7 days.”
The upshot? People who “rested” their memories were employing consolidation, an “automatic process of laying down the memory that goes on in the resting brain, but not the computer-dazzled one.”
In other words, the nonstop attention paid to brainy apps on our smartphones might be detrimental to our own brains.
And then there are the creepy tracking qualities of apps.
“Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, [cell phones] are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more,” reports The New York Times.
Makes my dumbphone seem downright neighborly.
Despite the disadvantages of smartphones, there are obvious benefits. As with all new technologies, the costs must be weighed against the benefits. Or, as the late media guru Neil Postman http://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/neil-postman-on-technologys-faustian-bargain/ put it, one must make a “deal with the devil” if he chooses to upgrade:
“New technology is a kind of Faustian bargain. It always gives us something, but it always takes away something important. That’s true of the alphabet, and the printing press, and telegraph, right up through the computer.”
So, too, with smartphones: They take away certain privacies and cognitive skills, while they simultaneously offer a great deal of efficiency and instantaneous information.
If almost two-thirds of the American public has made such a deal, maybe I can, too. I do like the simplicity of my non-touch-screen, imitation-Blackberry dumbphone, but my switch to a smartphone is inevitable if I want to remain an active citizen in 21st century America.
I can only hope that whatever society is gaining in this changeover is at least equal to what is lost.
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