We are glued to our smartphones for many reasons – to stay in touch with friends and family, to take photos and to read the news while waiting for the bus. With so many benefits come costs: Our phones distract us at work and while driving, at the dinner table and during life’s quiet moments, so that even simple pleasures like watching a sunset become fodder for Instagram photos or tweets.
This assault on our attention has become so common that new technologies and routines have arisen to combat it. But features designed to police screen times, set time limits on app usage and schedule “wind down time,” which turns screens to grayscale before going to bed are not enough. Nor are the periodic so-called digital Sabbaths and detoxes, which many undertake to be free of their phones.
To properly combat the million-dollar engineering that Silicon Valley deploys to hijack our attention, we need to recognize that technologies have long affected Americans’ behaviors and feelings. Well before smartphones, new inventions shaped our culture and our emotions, and changed how we feel about vanity, loneliness and boredom. Today, Silicon Valley is the latest to exploit these feelings in an effort to keep us harnessed to our screens.
For centuries, moralists preached that pride and vanity were deadly sins. Humans shouldn’t boast or think too much of themselves because they were fallible. Likewise Americans were taught to regard their accomplishments as hollow and fleeting because life was short. But popular technologies of the 19th century challenged these mores and helped inculcate new ones.
After photography was introduced to the United States in 1839, it took off quickly, and Americans flocked to photographers’ studios. Photos were relatively inexpensive: by mid-century, very small photos were available for as little as 25 cents – about $8 in 2019. Suddenly, having a portrait of oneself – long the privilege of elites – was possible for a wide swath of the American population. Frederick Douglass celebrated this shift when he observed that “the humblest servant girl, whose income is but a few shillings per week” could now have “a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and even royalty . . . fifty years ago.”