The advances made in the world of technology would be simply unbelievable to anyone not living in our generation. None of us, even, would have dreamed, 15 or 20 years ago, that it would be considered a necessity to carry around a device which allows us to make phone calls whenever we feel the need to. We certainly would not have dreamed of all the conveniences made more accessible by the smartphone, a device which is basically a supercomputer one carries around in one’s pocket.
Referring to a smartphone as a supercomputer is not hyperbole — it is the truth. A smartphone has both more computing power and more memory than Apollo 11 did when it landed on the moon.
As is the case with most conveniences of this sort, as soon as we have them, we feel as though they are something we could not possibly live without — even though we had never felt that we were missing them. Steve Jobs, the man behind all the innovations of Apple, explained it best when he said: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Instead, tech companies innovate and provide us with things we never even knew we wanted — until they are being sold.
That being the case, we should be able to understand how much of this “need” is an actual need, and how much of it is, as the Dubno Maggid explains all physical enjoyment to be, just a self-imposed void we fill over and over again. And in a moment of honesty, we envy those who never got their first smartphone, who do not feel the “need” felt by those of us who do have them. But, as is the case any time we allow ourselves to have a rational thought, we dismiss it by saying that we could not live without the convenience our phones afford us.
But do they make life more convenient? I am reminded of a story I heard of a fellow who was speaking with Harav Chaim Wysokier, zt”l, when the latter’s (home) phone began to ring. He ignored it and continued the conversation. When it continued to ring, the yungerman asked him if he was going to answer it. “Of course not,” he replied. “I have the phone to make it easier for me to communicate with other people, not so that I should become a slave to it.”
This is a hard idea for us to grasp, in a time when call-waiting has made it so that the person interrupting you has precedence over the one with whom you are already engaged in conversation!
Recently, a man fell to his death while walking along San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs. Witnesses say he was distracted by a handheld device when he fell — most likely a cell phone. It is a terrible story, for sure, but one that is emblematic of the times we live in. A Time poll found that over 50 percent of people cannot go an hour without checking their phones, and almost 20 percent could not even survive for 10 minutes. It is an age when people have become so attached to their phones that they are virtually a part of the actual person! Small wonder that it is possible for individuals to be so detached from the beauty of the world around them because they are busy on their cell phones.
There is an old joke that if you want to keep philosophy majors busy, ask them if they ever wonder if their dreams are reality, and reality is really a dream. In the case of phones, it is not something to wonder. People exchange the reality of their lives, their families and their experiences for something that takes place on a screen they carry around in their pocket. It is not really clear which one is their reality.
A friend tells me of a seven-year-old, who, when asked what he wanted for his birthday, told his parents he wanted a cell phone. “Why?” they asked. “Because I want to be able to text Mommy,” was the child’s reply. Living life entirely through the cellphone is the new reality this new technology has created for us — and in this case, a reality the child saw as the only way he could communicate with his mother.
The “instant” nature of life (also a product of tech, not a problem it was created to solve) has made it close to impossible to function in the world without these devices. I often find myself envious of friends and relatives who have not yet found themselves in need of a smartphone. But while we use these devices for parnassah or important matters, with the hadrachah of Gedolei Yisrael, we should always make sure to remember that these are accessories, meant to supplement our lives, not supplant them.