After trying to explain to friends and family over and over why I still resist the decision to buy a smartphone, I decided to put my thoughts together for anyone to read. Sadly the older generations, who are usually also the decision makers at corporate or governmental levels, are easily impressed by new technological trends, while at the same time remain fairly dispassionate about the environmental consequences, as if the protection of the ecology were in no way part of the moral debate. Younger generations simply follow the mainstream without guidance nor context, who at the same time are the most vulnerable to fall into addictive tendencies. Not every techy trend is progress, and modern is not a synonym of better. I urge everyone to see technological applications with discernment and with a critical mindset that takes into account its impact on all facets of society, not just how neat and innovative an idea seems to be. Below I summarize my opinion about the smartphone industry in general, from various points of view.
The Environmental/Ethical Argument:
The average life of a smartphone is 18 months, at best. I know people who have just bought yet another device, but they have 2 or 3 perfectly working devices in the drawer. This epidemic consumerist practice on a global, large scale level leads to over-extraction of needed materials on the one hand, and over-accumulation of toxic e-trash on the other, primarily with chemicals such as bromine and heavy metals such as mercury and lead, according to analysis by iFixit.org and HealthyStuff.org. Only 8% of all disposed-of smartphones are recycled, according to Environmental Protection Agency EPA, and even this marginal recycling effort is suboptimal, as the waste is usually shipped to developing countries that continue to process the toxic waste under questionable health and social standards. We have to pause and think if this practice of mining the Amazon while accumulating mountains of toxic trash is an endeavor our humanity can really afford to undertake. Furthermore, with data traffic being the predominant proportion of daily interactions in a smartphone, the impact of radiation and radio waves on the atmosphere is far greater with smartphones than with cellular phones with no internet access. Studies have shown that this radiation impacts the behavior of bees and could be contributing to the worldwide decline of the bee populations. If one of the main pollinators ceases to exist, the world food supplies will plummet. Scientific studies about the impact of this radiation on human health are still not conclusive, as decades of experimental data is yet to be acquired and analyzed.
The Social Argument:
The concept of ubiquitous Internet is a double-edged sword. Is 100% availability always a good thing? Are there any moments that should be internet-free? Fact is, when online, most people are tempted to check our emails every 5 minutes, constantly check if someone has clicked “like” on our last post, compulsively check every ever so meaningless post of everyone of our 600 Facebook “friends”. Are we missing out on real social interactions, while indulging in fake ones? I think so, and it is getting worse by the hour. The Internet has been proven to be the cause of addictive behavior. A smartphone enables this negative behavior to spread to the most intimate of moments, the most sacred of places. People use them during a family dinner, which is the only time families get together nowadays. Some take them to bed to the delight of their partners, and I have even witnessed someone surfing the internet while at church. Attention deficit is becoming a generalized ailment, that is no longer constrained to the vulnerable, yet information-bombarded young ones. The following is a great poem that summarizes this modern social disorder.
The Philosophical/Spiritual Argument:
Modern life has developed and optimized advertisement in a way that it exploits the most obscure of our unconscious traits. They know people are in a constant false hope to fill “the void”. They rely on our weakness of associating our latest purchase, that “precious one”, with the long lost piece of the puzzle that promises to finally make us whole. Only to realize three months later, that a newer, cooler, leaner and meaner item has been released; one that I must own at all cost. People wait in lines overnight to get the latest iPhone. They get attracted and fall like moths toward the deadly luminescence of the iPhone 5, no the iPhone 6, no the iPhone 7, no the… Why do they never realize, that there is a void, which will never be filled? It is part of our human nature, it is the Lacanian striving for the object petit a, it represents the Fall of Man talked about in the old testament, where man is now ashamed of his empty skin and must cover it, it is the Nothingness that eastern sacred texts talk about. This Emptiness has inspired humans to create awesome art, to produce the sweetest of symphonies. Why should we continuously try to plaster it with cat videos and porn, by projecting false images of ourselves on Facebook or indulging on meaningless posts of otherwise never maintained acquaintanceship? I wish the popular term selfie referred to the practice of self-reflection. I like to sit in silence and feel the void in all its depth and all its glory, every once in a while. It makes me feel human, it makes me feel the awesomeness of my existence in this vast universe. It connects me with God and with my fellow humans that are sensitive to similar pondering. It is the eternal mystery that inspired every world religion. Smartphones are yet another distraction, and I believe the most efficient one so far, to avoid the void. It is the ultimate clogging of the path to the Divine. It is the worshiping of the wrong god.
The Legal Argument:
More and more companies and governments are abusing the information that is routed through and/or saved in smartphones. Sensitive, private information is being sold for profit behind our backs or misused against us by law enforcement agencies. This is an unprecedented infringement of freedom with implications not yet fully understood by the population.
My Personal Argument:
I simply don’t need a smartphone. I have internet at home and at work. Do I really need internet access on the way from home to work? If I am unfamiliar with a place I have to visit, I quickly research it on the internet before I go. The next time I have to go there, the route is already in my own memory. People can reach me anytime at my phone number or via text message. If I am at home or in the office also via email or video chat, or they can simply stop by. My old cell phone (a late 2003 Nokia 6020) still works perfectly. It is smaller and weighs less than most new smartphones. I only had to replace the battery once, and one charge lasts me a whole week! Do I really need WhatsApp, or whatever the next fashion communications app is next year? If I want to listen to music, I have a high-end sound system at home. As a hobby musician, I cannot stand the bass-deprived, ant noise that these small devices produce. Regarding photography, I love taking nice photos and I own several cameras, both small and big, depending on the application. If I want to share a picture with someone over the internet, I can still do this as soon as I get back home. Does anyone truly care if I tag a picture of my food and publish it on Facebook immediately? Anyone at all? I didn’t think so.
I value technology, if it is appropriate to solve a real need. However, the issue here is not even a technological one. I have studied Telecommunications Engineering, and I can say that the underlying technology works for both voice and data transmission more or less independently of the downstream device used (digitizing data, encoding it and sending it via radio waves), and in itself is neither “good” nor “bad”. My decade-old cell phone operates out of the same basic technology as a smartphone, and in combination with an internet land line, both cover all of my communication needs quite well. The problem is not an engineering one, but a business one. It is yet another example of corporate greed, put into place through two mechanisms: bad management of hardware and bad management of software. The first one embodies a poor production mentality, as companies utilize planned obsolescence with predictable and timely failures that lead us to throw away and re-buy their fancily packaged junk. The second one has to do with how we utilize the underlying technology, as new features are constantly created and new false needs pushed to keep us buying every new release, in case the device didn’t fail first due to poor manufacturing (best!) practices.
When I was a kid, I thought technology in the new millennium would have brought us to Mars, or at least flying cars, but instead we got flashy handheld devices to send emojis. Was that it? I feel betrayed, I must say. After all the smartphone is just that, a clever idea that can make loads of money for certain circles smartly but disregards a number of moral issues. Otherwise it would have been called the Wisephone.
All jokes aside, my opinion is that humanity should use ingenuity and technical innovation for more altruistic goals, such as the development of cleaner energy, the treatment of disease or fighting poverty. The bottom line of the smartphone industry is exploiting our vulnerable psychological traits for corporate profit via top-to-bottom, pushed false needs and planned obsolescence, at the cost of adding to the destruction of forests and draining of the little remaining resources of the Earth and with total disregard to the health of body and spirit.