Smartphones: self-sedation, or self-improvement?

Smartphones create escape artists. In social situations, a smartphone offers an always-ready retreat from the stressful improvisation of face-to-face conversation. In lonelier moments, a smartphone helps us evade ourselves, holding existential questions and torturous self-evaluation at bay. In other words, smartphones too often substitute shallow interactions and white noise for a life of substance.

But could a smartphone pull us back into the world rather than away from it? Could smartphones facilitate real life, instead of substituting for it? Can phones ‘nudge’ their users toward deeper, more genuine involvement in others’ lives?

There are signs that they can:

  • This was the gist of Microsoft’s ‘Really’ ad campaign last fall. Windows Phone uses ‘Live Tiles,’ constantly-updating snippets of relevant info (e.g. upcoming calendar events, latest texts, etc.) to “get you in, out, and back to life.” The world’s largest software company gambled its entire mobile future on the premise that technology is a means, not an end.
  • Or consider the ‘Reminders’ feature in Apple’s newest OS. This service lets you set alerts by location, so that you can remember what you need to get done where. A timely notification might, for example, remind you to stop by the hardware store while you’re at the grocery store next door, saving you an extra trip and wasted time. Now, it’s up to you to spend those regained minutes on things that matter (family, friends, generosity, hospitality, etc.). But you could.
  • Finally, one more way my smartphone keeps me engaged: apps designed for quick, reliable text entry let me data-dump. I can exorcise the nagging thoughts and table ideas ‘til I have time to deal with them properly. This frees me up to focus my full attention on more important things—say, my beautiful wife across the dinner table.

As more mobile devices offer such features, real-life engagement and good phone development have begun to overlap. Well-thought-out phone platforms (and apps) thrust you out into the world; poorly-designed phones mire you in digital escape.