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The Problem Is Us, Not Our Technologies
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The Problem Is Us, Not Our Technologies

We were conquered by electronic media before we started carrying computers in our pockets.

(Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)

Three or four years ago, I was delighted to find that someone had developed an iPhone app for the game spite and malice. It’s a quick, two-player version of solitaire, and one of the games I grew up playing. 

It doesn’t require online access, and is faster and more mindless than gin rummy while still requiring some strategy. So the game is a perfect distraction while sitting on an airplane, cooling one’s heels in a waiting room, or enduring an interminable conference call or Zoom (sorry).  But the app contains one serious defect: Apple’s technology has allowed the game to keep track of every hand I have ever played on various devices over the years. 

In the past, I would occasionally open the little “Stats” tab and see a number that seemed very large but also abstract enough to discount or rationalize. Today, I did the math. At an average of 4 minutes 40 seconds per hand, I had spent a total of 7 days, 22 hours, 44 minutes, and 57.6 seconds playing 2,456 hands of cards against a computer program. I say “had” because I have another plane trip ahead of me as I write. By the time you read this, I will have hit a new high, or maybe more accurately, low. 

Eight days out of the past 1,300 or so full rotations of the earth comes to about .6 percent of my time since the spring of 2019. I have, thank God, spent many more days on worthwhile things, so what’s .6 between friends? But Apple was not through with me yet. 

Every Sunday at 9 a.m.—fittingly, the same time that the early service at my church begins—all of my devices inform me how many hours on average I have spent using them each day of the previous week. As I am called to worship, my phone reminds me of where I have really been placing my devotion.

These little badges that pop up on my screen would be like if Anheuser-Busch and Jack Daniels gave America’s drinkers a weekly belts-taken summary. Or, what if the restaurants we patronized sent a Sunday calorie report? *disables notifications* I leave my screen-time notifications on because I need the reminder. I want to do better at being present in the world as it is and loving the people around me—the same reasons I stopped tweeting in the summer of 2019. (And I assure you that for me, playing cards against an inanimate object is a big improvement over Twitter.) But also I find the scale of the numbers fascinating in a morbid way, like a hardened criminal hearing with pride a recounting of his past transgressions at his sentencing. 

Like anyone convicted of a crime, I will tell you there are extenuating circumstances. Listening to audiobooks, which is how I mostly “read” now, or to podcasts shouldn’t really count as “screen time,” nor should a phone call or listening to music. The device is on and running an application, but I am frying bacon, driving a car, swatting golf balls, or doing some paper-pushing kind of work—I promise not all at the same time. And what about emails, and sometimes I write my pieces on the phone, and sometimes I watch movies. … I hear my inner monologue sounding like Phil Hartman as Lionel Hutz and I know I have to confess. Even allowing for my legalistic claims, it’s still too much.

My next temptation is to blame the phone or iPad itself, as if I would have spent those hours exercising or volunteering at a shelter if it hadn’t been for that consarned device and the insidiously attractive apps it runs. That’s the kind of thinking by which we keep the side of fries instead of opting for the salad on the basis of the $3 upcharge.

But then I remember that my problem isn’t distraction, my problem is procrastination, as every editor I have ever had would readily attest. I have to fight the urge to be a digital Prufrock who measures out my life with hands of cards. But the app and the phone aren’t the problem. I am the problem.

I was very good at wasting time before iPhones, even before there was an internet. I wasted enough time playing actual cards with human beings in college that I probably could have added another major. I built model ships, tried to beat my own record for bouncing a tennis ball on a racquet, memorized National League batting statistics, went to see the same movie in the theater as many as 10 times, and always, always, always there was my best friend, television.

American TV consumption reached its all-time high in 2009-2010, when the average household soaked up a brain-numbing 8 hours and 55 minutes every day. Indeed, almost a third of the total increase in average television consumption from the birth of the medium as mass entertainment in the late 1940s to its peak 12 years ago came in the first decade of the 21st century. Whatever time I’ve wasted playing cards on my phone can’t hold a diode to what I laid down before the altar of basic cable. How many consecutive episodes of Quantum Leap does one have to watch before it is classified as a mental illness? Whatever the number, I feel confident that I would have qualified. 

In his 1987 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote: “We do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.” In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, America saw some very significant accomplishments—the defeat of Soviet communism and the development of the internet among them. But if you looked at where we spent our time, we were most deeply devoted to what Postman called being “narcotized” by television.

I don’t pretend that there aren’t serious disruptions attendant to Americans carrying their narcotizing devices in their pockets with them instead of having to go home and supplicate themselves before the glowing screen. Nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t consequences from entertainment that can be tailored to every individual’s preferences. Media that concentrates interests and turns us inward necessarily turns us away from each other. Network television, for all its vacuousness, was a shared national experience and sometimes exposed us to ways of life other than our own, even if in caricature.

But I do mean to remind us that we had already been conquered by electronic media before we started carrying little computers in our pockets. But the devices did not create the desire for entertainment as anesthesia. We have always wanted all we could get, and we were already getting more than we needed before Steve Jobs stepped out on stage in October 2007.  

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.