Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

It’s time you stopped being a slave to your smartphone

Marriage means asking your spouse to dump their phone. You get to keep yours

Last week I switched off my phone at 8.30pm and read a best-seller about a child psychologist who hadn’t left her house in 10 months (and this without any major aid from her smartphone). My precious device lay right in front of me, motionless, unblinking yet so easily resuscitated, and my fingers itched to bring it back to life. I couldn’t abandon it callously in another room, that favourite tip of people who still read seriously in the Digital Age. And I must confess I had to soothe the dryness of my throat with deep gulps of Old Monk but, for once, the book won.

Apparently, I’m addicted to my smartphone. Or so says the husband, who has now patented his own perfect evil stare and uses it every time I pick up my phone.

It doesn’t matter that he has liked or commented on every common friend’s Facebook post before I have; that he tweets more than me (his tweeting is work-related, you see); that I caught him carrying his phone to the loo (so that he doesn’t pick it up in front of me, apparently); that it’s okay for him to watch YouTube videos before he sleeps (that’s different); or that we have 23 WhatsApp groups in common and he is invariably quicker on the draw than I.

Like most of you, I need my phone for music, humour, poetry, news, gossip, friendship, love, work, shopping, family and Uber. Most of this is channelled through my social media accounts. I use my phone to share my daughter’s shenanigans with her loyal band of followers on Instagram and to watch those insanely good recipe videos on Pinterest courtesy BuzzFeed’s Tasty. Thanks to a stint at Juggernaut Books, a unique digital-first publishing company, I read on my phone, and because of Netflix, I can watch Ali Wong on my phone in bed. I made the husband watch a segment of my favourite stand-up comic’s latest show too, just so he could see that pulling a spouse’s leg is a profitable business model across the world.

I’m tired of convincing him that the poor night’s sleep was not because of extended screen time. It doesn’t help that there are more than enough studies that link every bad habit of mine to the smartphone. So these days I’m playing marriage counsellor to myself. If it bothers him so much, is there anything I can do about my nomophobia (no mobile phone phobia)? Can I shock myself out of this co-dependent relationship?

That’s probably why the direct title of Jaron Lanier’s latest book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, appealed to me. Lanier, a Silicon Valley celebrity and the big daddy of virtual reality, says he’s living proof that you can have a public life in media without social media accounts.

From “You Are Losing Your Free Will" (in the digital-age version of behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner’s famous experiments with rats, you are tracked and measured constantly and receive engineered feedback, says Lanier, so the smartphone is essentially the implementer of relentless robotic behaviour modification) to “Social Media Is Making You Into An Asshole" (it awakens your inner troll and since everyone’s inner troll is awakened here, you don’t even notice how bizarre you sound when your inner troll starts talking), each argument is more compelling than the previous.

Lanier’s arguments confirm what we already half-know: Social media undermines truth, makes what you say meaningless, destroys your capacity for empathy, makes you unhappy, doesn’t want you to have economic dignity, makes politics impossible—it is responsible for drawing younger people away from democracy—and, worst of all, social media hates your soul.

BUMMER, his acronym to describe our socially networked world, is the Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. In one argument—“it’s the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times"—Lanier says that deleting your social media accounts improves your chances of access to a better version in the future. “Inherent in the bummer business model is the assertion that there is only one possible way for digital services to work, which is that you, the individual user, must be made subservient. That is not true. The prevalence of this message is one of the best reasons to quit social media," he argues. I was almost convinced to hit delete on my Facebook account.

For reassurance that my life wouldn’t end if I altered my relationship with my smartphone, I called Gautam John, a friend who deleted his Facebook account during the 2014 general election “when conversations became less civil", and then went off Twitter after the US presidential election in 2016 when the microblogging site became infested with troll armies.

From keto to HIIT and Quantified Self to sous vide, John’s always ahead of the trend curve. There’s nothing he misses about Twitter, and he has forgotten what Facebook felt like, he says. He’s reading books, rather than links that never really added up to anything. He’s meeting real people and having real conversations. How about your relationship with your partner, I ask. “When I looked at my phone constantly, the only conversations I had were the ‘important ones’. Now our conversations aren’t always related to the big stuff, we have mundane conversations too," he says. “It’s the way life used to be, we talk about everything."

Now that I’m equipped to make an informed decision, I need to decide whether to take seriously the sentence that occurs most frequently in Lanier’s book: Delete your accounts. Help me, let’s discuss this further on social media.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani.

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