To the best of my Rain Man-like assessment abilities, I estimate that about 78% of the people I know own smartphones. An extremely high percentage of those people have also posted at least one link to an anti-smartphone rant, with an accompanying declaration of smug superiority, on some form of social media in the past year.
Either I know the only people who know how to use smartphones "properly," the only population in the entire world who have managed to navigate the tool without letting it influence their old school behaviours and social programming, or this is all part of some strange ritual self-flagellation that a large swath of iPhone and Android devotees have decided that they need to engage in to atone for their own enjoyment of and dependence on technology.
The latest round of reproach and/or half-hearted repentance came this past weekend when links to Louis C.K.'s already legendary anti-smartphone screed started to flood my Facebook timeline along with the kind of self-righteous commentary that I've come to expect from this phenomenon. The only thing that really changed in this particular cycle was that I shared the link as well. Instead of the usual "This is why I love Louis C.K.!" and "He's absolutely right!" commentary, though, I sent it out into my little social media universe with a simple "FUCK THIS SHIT."
Despite what my inarguably articulate and nuanced response might suggest, I'm not mad at Louis C.K. for what he said, or mad at anyone who agrees with him. I'm just disappointed, exasperated and increasingly frustrated by the attitudes and arguments on which the anti-smartphone ethos is based.
I generally like Louis C.K. and even when I don't agree with him, I usually respect his opinions. The same goes for my friends. But their stance on this issue is ignorant. They are making the assumption that the old, pre-smartphone social structure and rules were better for everyone because they happened to work for them. They didn't, though. And this is why I'm not the least bit ambivalent or apologetic about my smartphone. It has genuinely transformed my life for the better. In some small way, it might actually have saved it.
I mostly wasn't joking when I said that I had Rain Man-like qualities in my first sentence. I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger's with a possibility of Nonverbal Learning Disability if you want to be old school and pre-DSM V about these things). Symptoms of my disorder include an inability to understand and read "normal" social cues, issues with eye contact, hackish misrepresentation on inexplicably popular CBS sitcoms, and problems with the expression of empathy.
Before the proliferation of the smartphone, in a time that so many people I know are now celebrating as some sort of socially-inclusive and welcoming utopia, I was constantly screwing up even the most basic of social tenets and losing friends, if I ever made them to begin with. I'd forget to make eye contact or blankly stare at the other person's pupils for too long and creep them out. I could never figure out how to read other people's body language, facial expressions and tone, and mine were routinely off and off-putting. I would either say the wrong thing, because my slightly out of synch autistic processing speed could never quite come up with the proper empathic response in the right time frame, or just give up and say nothing for fear of what would come out.
These issues haven't disappeared since I first purchased a smartphone just over two years ago, but they're no longer the absolute deal-breakers they once were. Thanks to texting, photo and video messages, social media apps, and whatever other random doohickeys I might find myself playing with at any given time, I am able to augment the more traditional ways to express and experience relationships with forms of communication that accommodate my social capabilities, quirks, processing speed and comfort levels; I'm able to develop bonds and stay in touch with "normal" or neurotypical people and autistic people in a way that actually works for all of us. And while Louis C.K. and his supporters assert that you need face to face contact and the ability to see another person's expressions to build empathy, I've found that occasionally removing the pressures of that contact has allowed me, for the first time in my life, to express all of the empathy that I have always had for my loved ones and fellow humans. It has allowed me to prove that I am a person.
As for the social ills that this kind of technology is supposed to be spreading in the normal world, I can honestly say that, from my slightly removed vantage point, I haven't really seen any major changes. At worst, it exacerbates the kind of bad habits, self-involvement and cruelty that always existed in our society. The person who spends hours dicking around on their phone instead of talking to you at a restaurant or club is the exact same person who would have been looking over your shoulder and trying to find someone more important to talk to 10 or 20 years ago. The kid who posts "You're fat" on a Facebook wall is the same little shit who would have followed you home and screamed it at your house.
The mean kid learning curve that Louis describes in his Conan bit makes for a snappy little story, but it's an oversimplification if not a complete fiction. Kids don't actually see the hurt they cause in another child's face, feel guilt and then learn to become better human beings. My own childhood bullies certainly didn't. My chronically slumped shoulders, my tears - even my anxious dry heaves in the school bathroom - left little to no impression on them. It didn't make them question the insults they hurled at me, the vicious pranks they pulled on me, or the things they scribbled on my clothing. Some people are just assholes, regardless of the tech they use.
And, after a childhood filled with bullying and an adulthood in which I've watched the people I love face all sorts of the half-surmountable odds and tragedies that come with being alive for any period of time, I'm not even sure I agree with Louis C.K. that the constant distraction that smartphones provide is necessarily a bad thing. I personally enjoy a bit of mindful meditation. I don't take music on my long-distance runs because I have a hippie-ish desire to listen to my own breath and hear the the ground crunch under my shoes and be in touch with all of the rush and sadism that comes from making yourself go through something as dumb as a half-marathon. Music - whether you're running with an iPod or listening to "Jungleland" on the radio in your car - is also a technology-assisted distraction, after all. But I don't begrudge those who don't do want to do anything of those things. I spent large portions of my childhood isolated, sad and believing that Dostoevsky and Ian Curtis held all of the truths to our cursed existence, and I can't say I'm any better off or human for it. And I genuinely can't name a single person in my life who needs to be even more in touch with or aware of the inherent sadness, isolation and existential dread of life.
If you can, then maybe your anti-smartphone stance is far more of a danger to empathy and personhood than my ASD and smartphone-loving ways could ever be.
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