A few weeks ago, Liverpool became the first UK city to open a ‘walking lane’. These special lanes are designed for people walking with purpose. Similar systems can be found in Antwerp and Chongqing, although these have been designated as ‘text-walking’ lanes. Both aim to tackle the same problem: The distracted walker with a smartphone addiction.
Although the idea is great for purposeful pedestrians with somewhere to be, it is a sad reflection on our ongoing love affair with technology. It is almost paternalistic, forcing us to rely on guidelines to get us from A to B because a large percentage of our society cannot ignore their phones for more than five minutes.
It is obvious that our walking is affected by our smartphones, and studies have even proven this, but this is the least of our worries when it comes to our addiction. Our mental capacities and social lives are being greatly affected too.
Most significantly, the problem has exacerbated our ever-diminishing attention span.
The problem is clear in many young people, including myself. When your smartphone is constantly in your pocket—almost touching you—its presence is forever there. Inevitably it becomes extremely difficult to go five minutes without checking for any updates, messages, or nothing at all. More often than not nothing is what you will find—you will be left holding a black mirror rather than any burning information—but that does not stop you checking again within five minutes.
Despite your habitual checking and rechecking, you know that if anything important were to come through, your phone would alert you anyway. But, this does not matter, so you check it again. This situation is common amongst the smartphone generation and is only getting worse at the younger end of the spectrum. We are, after all, a demographic who have never experienced life without a WiFi-enabled phone.
Although it may be an exaggerated, purist attitude, I believe the addiction is also ruining our experience of life. With part of our minds always on our phones, nothing is ever experienced to its full potential. Our attention is often somewhere else, meaning we are never really present. I now seem to to cherish those days where I am completely ‘off-the-grid’, only connected with what is around me.
Since there is now an app for everything, and a whole world of information is at our fingertips, we have begun to discover so much less for ourselves. Information is good, of course, but having it so close, and so easily accessible, means we appreciate its value far less. We no longer take the time to rationalise, to think, to figure out the answers to questions. Eventually, we may become reliant on a constant connection to the ‘Cloud’, struggling to cope in any situation where it is no longer present.
Our social relationships are also damaged through this unhealthy addiction. Just as our own experiences fail to get full attention, so to do our friends. Whilst on our phones, we may be in one conversation and at the same time someone may be sitting right in front of us trying to have another conversation, and both sides get a half-baked version of the real thing. While it would be considered rude to walk away from one conversation to join another, this is effectively what is done in these circumstances. No-one would bat an eyelid if someone were to get their phone out mid-conversation, ignoring the person at present to respond to another through their phone. Our friendships are therefore becoming damaged, as when we are on our phones all the time, the time spent with one another in real life is never fully appreciated.
All this considered, I am not advocating the rejection of smartphones completely. It may be argued that we survived without them before, so we should not need them now, but I do not think this is a great response. Progress is good and we learn to adapt with new pieces of technology. When the wheel was invented, people did not reject it because they survived without it before. People adapted their lives to use it to their advantage. However, in the case of the smartphone, we must be careful that the extent to which we using them is really to our advantage.
It does not seem like a progressive step when people become so anxious and uncomfortable without their phones that they are forced to bring their charger everywhere. People need to use their own initiative and really consider whether the excessive use is necessary and whether it actually has improved their lives.
In most cases, I believe we would be able to appreciate our lives far better if we were to dedicate our full attention to the real life, off-screen people and events around us.