That's Debatable: Have Smartphones Hijacked Our Life?

Adam Sneed

[Watch full video of the debate here.]

How we experience technology colors our opinions of it. In college, a literature program put me and forty other students in the woods of Maine -- six weeks without cell phones, computers, or recorded music.  We built a close, trusting community. Would that have been possible if our smartphones were handy? Being disconnected forced us to take risks, like shimmying on a log to cross a river when we were lost.  GoogleMaps would have just led us to the road.

With that experience, I sat down for the New America Foundation’s first debate in our new series, “That’s Debatable.” Four experts came ready to battle. The resolution being debated: Your smartphone has hijacked your life. 

In this corner, the Yes camp: Christine Rosen, a Schwartz Fellow at New America and senior editor of The New Atlantis who is writing a book on how technology mediates experience, and Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.

In that corner, the No camp: Marvin Ammori, a Schwartz Fellow and First Amendment lawyer who recently published an ebook on Internet policy, and Miriam Warren, Yelp’s Vice President of New Markets.

As the crowd assembled, a preliminary poll showed that 36% of the audience sided with Rosen and Sarewitz – that smartphones are hijacking their lives.  

I was in the anti-smartphone camp.

Daniel Sarewitz kicked off the opening statements by warning that we may “rob ourselves of the potential authenticity of encounter” if we depend on smartphones. He asked, “Why is it that the essence of our app-mediated existence seems so eerily, bizarrely reminiscent of some of our most famous and enduring visions of dystopia?” Smartphones make us narcissistic and narrow-minded, he said. The consequences may be grave:

To argue against the resolution, Miriam Warren said that people who support it must believe that smartphones are “doing more harm than good.

She uses hers to stay in touch with her grandmother—a correspondence that has “completely extended” their relationship. She suggested, “The people asking this question are lamenting the loss of the old, afraid of embracing the new.  Rather than participating, they assign moral judgment.”

Christine Rosen claimed that app companies are making commodities out of our experiences and emotions. As smartphones change society, she feels that privacy is eroding. She described a digital bystander effect where “we have a bubble around us of our known universe” in which “we’re less connected with our immediate surroundings and [less] open to kind of experiences that I think do make us deeply human.”

Marvin Ammori rebutted the arguments that that smartphones have hijacked our lives. He remembered the boredom and isolation of his pre-Internet childhood in Michigan. He feels experiences have been enriched by the new technologies and the online companies are “very pro-user and free speech.” He explained, “Sometimes people want to be private in a public place.

The debate then turned into a thirty-minute free-for-all, moderated by Andrés Martinez.

The debaters agreed that smartphones are changing our lives.

For Warren, the issue of privacy and control is less important than the experiences, like chatting with her grandmother:

But Rosen disputed the idea that people have choice, saying that we need more power over how these technologies shape society. 

Ammori pointed out that the Internet has made experts more accessible, but Rosen countered: 

So, as the debate wound down, I thought of my own grandmother. Her notes, filled with funny anecdotes or limericks, helped us stay connected. She always used a typewriter. After she passed away at 96 last July, I looked back at the journals I kept during my technology-free summer in Maine and a folded letter fell from the binding.  Beneath the typed ink, she had signed, “Guess who?”  Any correspondence with people we love, online or offline is special, but this kind of accidental discovery—a physical encounter—wouldn’t have happened had my grandmother adopted Facebook.    

Who won the first New America “That’s Debatable?” Looks like the audience was convinced the smartphones (irony: that’s how they cast their ballots) were hijacking their lives.  52% -48% – a 16 point shift . 

After the event, people lingered, eager for more face-to-face conversation. Some kept their smartphones in their pockets.  Others opened apps, trying to find the easiest way home…or maybe to call their grandmothers.