In the 2001 documentary film “Scene Smoking” about smoking in the movies, Sean Penn says: “Smoking is an affectation of a social disorder.” Today, I’ve heard people say that technology is the new smoking. Maybe, then, technology is an affectation of a social disorder. Namely, wireless, handheld devices (but laptops and the rest, too).
In another documentary, “Connected” (2013), filmmaker Tiffany Shlain starts off describing how she has to force herself not to look at her phone all of the time. She shares a story about flying across the country to meet with a friend. Only a short while after touching down and meeting with the friend, she feels compelled to check her email and makes an excuse to use the bathroom. She just came all this way, and now she’s faking the need to pee so she can surreptitiously check her phone.
Shlain’s documentary starts out ostensibly about this kind of obsession, and what it means. Soon, though, the film turns into a love letter to her father, a wonderful man who finds all sorts of “connections” in the world around him. Her father has written books on the relationship between art and physics and how the acquisition of the written word changed history from goddess-worshipping to patriarchal societies.
Regardless of these engaging ideas, the documentary fails to touch on this idea of connectivity – or attachment to that connectivity – as an affectation of a social disorder. Not that it promised to, but this is the kind of exploration I’m looking for.
The parity between smoking and smartphones probably ends with this hypothetical association that they are both such affectations. Otherwise, smoking and phone-checking are pretty different. But what makes them related to this idea of a social disorder? They are both compulsive behaviors. I’ve had people admit to me that they check their phone for texts or Facebook updates every ten minutes. And we’ve all seen people walking down the street with a phone in front of their face. We don’t think we’re one of those people…until we are.
It’s true, I’m predicating this whole “social disorder” idea on something Sean Penn said. But if Sean Penn said it, and we are indeed all very connected, and our actions interrelated and interdependent, as “Connected” portrays them, then this idea is likely not relegated to that of one man. So let’s run with it.
Evolutionary thinking tells us that we have formed the quest for emotional connections out of a survival instinct. Smoking is often touted as an oral fixation, which popular psychology suggests has to do with a child’s early relationship to breast feeding. This may have some bearing on smoking, but certainly doesn’t make or break a smoker. But other ideas, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s advancements in Tipping Point, suggest that early childhood factors can play a role in smoking – when and where we first come into contact with smoking, and who is doing the smoking and what that person means to us. This too, then, is a type of emotional connection – we are seeking to be like that person, or what they represent, because we unconsciously feel it will put us in good social standing, where connections are fruitful, and thus bolster our survivability in the world (ironic though it is that smoking is unhealthy).
It’s easier to see the link between compulsive wireless device use and emotional connectivity than it is smoking, both because there isn’t that glaring health caveat to deal with, and because we are more overtly “connecting” when we tap into Facebook or text with someone or check our email.
What did we do before to get this kind of connectivity? Have conditions in society engendered a greater need for us to feel connected?
One theory is that the technology of transportation has allowed us to travel far outside of our immediate communities, and so many people today don’t know who their neighbors are, and may spend less time in the city or village where their house is and more time somewhere else, where they work. Advantages? The dating pool has increased beyond a 50 mile radius populated by your cousins. Disadvantages? We may lose touch with the people right around us.
In his book The Human Zoo, author Desmond Morris considers human beings inherently tribal. Human beings need connections with other human beings for security and survival. This is mainly because humans evolved to be born before they are very developed. Human infants are reliant on caregivers longer than any other species. What better way to ensure security than to be born to a tribe of caregivers? However, Morris describes the modern human race as consisting of much larger “supertribes” than closely-knit smaller societies. And Malcolm Gladwell would likely agree with Morris that there are too many people in our supertribe to know them all individually. (Gladwell posits that 150 is the maximum number of people any individual really “knows,” and Morris would say that a supertribe can be a city – far too many people to know them all.)
So, we end up on the subway with a bunch of people in our supertribe who we don’t know. And we’re all not even looking at each other anyway, but at our smart phones, where we are connecting to our smaller tribe – those people on Facebook, those who email and text us, and so on. We still seek the emotional connectivity, but we apparently have not evolved the kinds of brains or consciousness to find that connectivity in the world immediately around us; it is filled with veritable strangers and often outside of the communities in which we live, as we travel across the country, commute to work, every day becoming more a part of the global society.
Chances are, no matter how global we get, we will continue to need the security of our smaller groups of friends and family. It may be hundreds or thousands of years before we evolve into beings that can process the stimuli of a global society and consider all people in it (or at least more than 150) as our “tribe.”
(Disclaimer: It’s true we’re not always checking our phones just to connect with friends and loved ones. We may be looking at the news, or watching a video of some guy who just freed three captive women from a derelict house, or checking the weather or sports statistics. Still, in doing so, we are connecting socially. And even if the application is one-way, it will be our closer connections with who we share the news. )
(Disclaimer #2: Many smart phones are shiny and cool and have games, which make them appealing, too.)