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Resisting the tyranny of the smartphone

We should not allow a harmful product to become a social requirement

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Resisting the tyranny of the smartphone
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Remember back when conservatives were up in arms about the use of vaccines as “social passports”? For some, the problem was vaccines themselves, which they regarded as dangerous or unethical. Many others, though, were happy to get vaccinated themselves but worried about the implications of a society in which one had to carry around proof of vaccination to work at a job, attend a movie, or even order lunch. And rightly so—such mandates strike at the very basis of a free society, and force families to choose between their moral principles and their very livelihoods.

It is odd, then, that having been so vigilant against this form of soft tyranny, we’ve allowed ourselves to submit to the dominion of another form of social passport—the smartphone. During the first decade or so after Apple introduced the iPhone, smartphones quickly established themselves as the easiest gateway to the digital world—music, email, social media, and web browsing—but left the analog world relatively untouched. Over the past few years, though, that has changed. If you want to order a taxi, you’ll probably need Uber or another app. To order off some menus (or at least to skip the line and get the discounts), you’ll need to scan the QR code or use the restaurant app. To park, attend a sporting event, access your university email, access the state park, view your school sports team’s practice schedule—you name it, and you need a smartphone to do it, or soon will. Most adults and many teenagers now find (or think) they simply cannot carry out their vocations without carrying a smartphone in their pockets.

Now, if the smartphone were just a useful gadget, this phenomenon would be a minor annoyance, and those grumbling about it would seem like incorrigible Luddites, like an old-time farmer in the 1930s complaining about all the things that now run on electricity. But if smartphones are more like vaccines—something that’s supposed to be good for us but may not be—then there is a much deeper cause for concern. In point of fact, the attempt to extend smartphone dependency to every corner of civil society has come at exactly the same time that data on the harms of smartphone addiction have exploded. Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, is just a summation of a reality we cannot afford to ignore any longer. It turns out that giving 12-year-olds a 24/7 distraction machine, access to a stash of hardcore pornography, and a hotline to sexual predators to carry around in their pockets is not a good idea.

The soft tyranny of the smartphone is one area where individuals cannot push back on their own.

Frankly, it may not even be a good idea for 32-year-olds, especially if they’re trying to model healthy habits for their kids. I know that my smartphone makes me a worse parent, and even if I need one (or tell myself I need one) for work, I sure wish I didn’t have to bring it everywhere. Indeed, for conservatives worried about surveillance (one of the worries behind vaccine cards), the idea of wedding ourselves to a little machine that tracks and records our every movement and whim should be more than a little unsettling.

Unfortunately, the typical conservative response—“let’s promote individual responsibility and healthy habits”—simply doesn’t cut it in a world of perverse incentives and network effects. The market will always follow the path of least resistance in trying to reach customers and cut labor costs, and it turns out that “download our app” is going to be a lot more profitable in most cases than “come talk to one of our sales associates.” And for parents of teenagers, it can be almost impossible to promote healthy choices when the teens are living in a world where not just their peers, but their employers, their schools, and their churches are requiring them to communicate via smartphone.

The soft tyranny of the smartphone is one area where individuals cannot push back on their own. There is an appropriate role for public policy in keeping useful but dangerous technologies out of the hands of children (cars, for instance!), and preserving spaces within civil society where we don’t need to use them (such as pedestrian-only shopping districts). If Ron DeSantis could require businesses to serve customers equally whether or not they had a vaccine card, we should be able to require businesses to serve customers with or without a smartphone.

However, while government can help, we must also work through our own local and voluntary institutions to create environments for a more disciplined use of technology. How many churches today expect you to participate in worship, or give, by scanning the QR code? How many Christian schools use an app for managing extra-curricular activities? Technology is a great servant but a bad master; although these devices may be here to stay, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our children to ensure we are using them, rather than them using us.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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