Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields.
The lesson we’re slowly beginning to learn, though, is that they’re not a harmless vice. Used the way we currently use them, smartphones keep us from being our best selves. The world is starting to make up its mind about whether it’s worth it and whether the sugary hits of digital pleasure justify being worse, both alone and together.
As I’ve said a time or two dozen, we keep ourselves from being our “best selves;” smartphones are just the latest convenient excuse we strew across our own path. If it somehow becomes widely accepted that phones are no longer considered an acceptable excuse for our shortcomings, we’ll invent another one. That’s the human condition. Sartre may have been a garbage human being, but his concept of bad faith almost makes everything else about him worth it.
The article makes full use of the latest terminology from neuroscience, of course. This is how we like to deny our agency these days, by pretending that we’re at the mercy of our neural pathways and dopamine spurts. But those neurochemical factors were always involved in our omnipresent battles with temptation, even when we didn’t have the technology to observe them. Nothing has changed since Paul was lamenting how “the good that I would, I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The fact that we talk about neurotransmitters instead of willpower or virtue now doesn’t change the fact that the solution is still the same as it’s always been: reflect on your behavior, acknowledge any flaws that need correcting, and start practicing new habits. If you can’t do that, it’s probably because you don’t actually care enough to do so. Admitting that, though — that’s the problem. I remember an old punchline about having never seen someone work so hard to avoid work — similarly, I’m always amused/amazed at how much effort people will put into rationalizing and excusing their bad habits rather than practice good ones.
Look, I’ve had a smartphone for six years. I mostly use it for work, and otherwise it sits on my dresser, untouched, for hours. I don’t surf the web on it. The only game I have on it is a chess app, and I rarely play it. I don’t text people just to chat. Am I superhuman to be able to resist this supposedly-immense gravitational pull of dopamine rushes and novelty bias? I can assure you I’m not. You know what I do instead? I make time to have in-depth conversations with the Lady of the House, and I set aside a couple hours almost every day to read books. There is no possibility of being distracted by a stupid toy phone, no matter how insidious the intentions of engineers at Google, because I’m consciously aware that these are the things I’d rather do than anything else on Earth. If you find yourself repeatedly preferring to thumb your phone rather than talk to your spouse, maybe that says something uncomfortable about the quality of your relationship. If you’d rather browse aimlessly through the app store than read a book, maybe you’re not actually interested in reading, even though some aspirational part of you thinks you should be. Those are the sorts of unsettling questions most of us would rather avoid, even at the expense of our dignity as we make pathetic excuses for why we never do the things we claim to want to do. By pretending to be enfeebled, we somehow, counterintuitively, salvage our pride.
Discipline is a verb, not a noun. It’s not a “thing” you “get” in order to perform actions. It is the consistent performing of actions. You only know you have it in hindsight, when you look back at a pattern of consistent accomplishments. Until then, there’s a hundred tiny trials every day. You can either practice skills and habits to better cope with them, or you can allow them to defeat you and whine about it.
“But you don’t understand!” people like Andrew-Gee will sputter. “Parents are too often on the phone to greet their children upon arriving home! Mothers are too distracted by texting to pay attention to their breastfeeding infants! These are some of the most fundamental, important aspects of our lives! It’s too terrible to accept the implications for our character if being distracted is a choice we’re all making, rather than something being imposed on us!”
Yes, I know. That’s exactly what I’m saying.