The Problem With Constant Connectivity

Phones are something we carry with us every day, everywhere we go.

And like a tumor, they keep growing larger.

When something physically looms larger and larger in our lives, it’s safe to say that its influence over our lives is growing as well. For instance, as consumerism has become more baked into American culture, house sizes have grown larger.

So what does growing phone sizes say about the role of phones in our lives?

Pre-smartphone, phones were constantly growing smaller. The first dumb phones were like bricks, and there was nowhere to hide them but a briefcase or a purse. Each successive generation grew smaller and smaller.

Admittedly, this is a bit before my time. As a 1995 child, my second phone was an iPhone — but my very first was the thinnest Motorola Razer. It was slim enough to fit in my child-sized pocket and big enough that I could speed text with nine buttons. Truly, it was peak dumb phone.

Yes, during that evolution there were internet-enabled phones and phones with touchscreens, but quite frankly, they were terrible. Only the business user had adequate motivation to learn how to use them. The average person wasn’t expected to have one. And they, too, followed the trend of smaller.

Until the iPhone came out.

Steve Jobs was right — the iPhone did change everything. Rather, the App Store did. I remember the touchscreen iPhone as being a fascinating gimmick, but ultimately not a large value add unless you texted a lot (which, as a teenager, I sure did). It wasn’t until the App Store came out that I felt I absolutely had to have one. Having an iPhone with the iBeer app undoubtedly made me the coolest kid around.

The App Store changed the way we related to phones. Instead of being a utility for calls and texts, it suddenly became a portal to the internet. As that portal grew more powerful, more and more data could be piped through it. With more data, it only makes sense to have more screen to display that data on. So, with every few generations of iPhone, the screen grew (and the non-iPhone-market followed suit). What started out as a tiny, 3.5” screen has ballooned into a 6.5” behemoth.

Admittedly, device size hasn’t changed as dramatically. But device size has always been a constraint based on a compromise between screen size and technical requirements, and the desire for a phone that is as small as possible while meeting those requirements. The fact that manufacturers have chosen to almost double phone screen size at the expense of phone size even as the tech became more efficient speaks volumes about what we, as consumers, think is important.

And what is that? Constant connectivity.

There was a time, not so long ago, when we didn’t worry about constant connectivity.

We happily left the house with our dumb phones, content to leave email until we got home from work or our errands or the gym or wherever we went. We rested easy knowing that if there was an emergency, someone would call us with what they needed.

Now we live in the world of constant connectivity. We expect to be able to reach others — and ourselves be reached — at any instant, for anything.

It quickly became clear that constant connectivity is not good for the human mind. Clinicians began finding evidence that internet use reduces people’s ability to focus for long durations of time. It reduces people’s ability to think critically. Far from being an unintended side-effect, these are the natural consequences of constant connectivity. After all, constantly checking in with your phone means constantly checking out of what else is going on around you.

Some researchers are beginning to believe that this constant connectivity is responsible for the rise of ADHD in young children and the rise in depression in teenagers. As a child who grew up with the internet, I have firsthand experience of how destructive mixing the self-consciousness of adolescence with the constant connectivity of the internet is.

But you don’t need all this research to come to that conclusion. Anyone who has seen a child using an iPad can see it for themselves. Even as toddlers, children feverishly focus on their devices to the point of forgetting to eat, sleep, or even talk.

You can also look within yourself for proof. You know that vague feeling of constant anxiety you have? Like no matter how many relaxing baths you take, and how many bath bombs (or shots of whiskey) you use, you’re still stressed out? You can thank constant connectivity for that.

What makes this problem so pernicious is that we’re expected to be constantly connected. To some extent, we don’t have a choice.

Back in the day (and indeed, for the last ten thousand years), not being in constant connectivity — or in fancy language, asynchronous communication — worked. Primarily, it worked because we all did it. We all had the same expectations of each other.

In the world of constant connectivity (or synchronous communication), we now expect each other to be constantly connected. If someone isn’t connected, it’s cause for alarm. Has something happened to them? If we find out that they didn’t have a ‘good reason’ not to be connected, like some kind of emergency, we are annoyed.

Disconnecting, then, is not as easy as buying an old Nokia and merely switching back. Even if you eliminate the problematic technology, the expectations it creates in society will remain firmly in place.

How can we disentangle from the dangerous side-effects of constant connectivity while still meeting our social obligations?

Some technology can be removed with little ill effect. Almost all social media, for instance, is not truly essential except for those who work in digital advertising. If you use Snapchat to keep up with people and you delete Snapchat, the people who matter will learn how to text your phone number instead.

But we can’t do that for everything. Take work communication — in the world of information work, employers expect to always be in touch with their employees, even if they are not actually at work at the moment. If a boss sends an important email out at 6:45PM after most folks have gone home, he might still expect his team to open the email, read it, and take triage measures that night.

Indeed, this is the point of classifying information workers as salaried employees — it’s to make compensation for being on-call easier. But now, instead of only surgeons being on call, it’s everyone who works with a computer.

Slack only makes this problem worse. Email, at least, has the veneer of not being urgent. Slack, on the other hand, is an instant messaging platform and carries all the associated stigma about responding immediately. Even if the literal expectation isn’t there, the pressure is, in the form of notifications waiting to be addressed.

Think about it. I don’t know about you, but when my boss sends me a Slack message, I feel compelled to respond right then and there. Even if I don’t immediately tackle the task, it feels like I’m obligated to acknowledge receiving it. After all, I could be seen as slacking off (ha ha) if I don’t.

My boss and other co-workers are very supportive people and have no problem with me setting digital boundaries. But if my boss weren’t, and instead accused me of slacking off for ignoring messages, he would have a compelling case. It would not be difficult for him to find someone (probably another millennial or Gen Z-er) who is happy to respond to all messages at the drop of the hat. In purely economic terms, when I set digital boundaries for myself, I become a less valuable worker.

This is one of the very, very few areas where blue-collar workers have it easier than white collar (information) workers. When you work on a job site and you are not on your shift, you are not on the job site. There’s no ‘quick five-minute task’ a boss could ask you to do. Your time off is truly off, truly your own. Information workers, though, can be asked to perform tasks large and small at all hours. Even when we’re not at work, we need our phones on our person just in case.

This is to say nothing of family life. In the world of constant connectivity, spouses and children expect to be able to get in touch with each other at the drop of the hat. Honey might need you to pick up some cough syrup for the kids. Hubby needs you to mail something at the post office for him because it will be closed when he gets out of work. Cindy forgot her trombone and needs you to go home, get it, and drop it off at the school. If you don’t see these notifications, then where the hell were you?

There are other compelling reasons not to disentangle. Smartphones, if utilized properly, can be powerful forces for good. They bring the world’s information to your fingertips, after all. You can read the work of Marcus Aurelius while waiting at a bus stop. You can listen to Jonathan Haidt discuss the minds of America while driving to work. You can learn Spanish from Duolingo while sitting on the pooper. With resources like this, no one has an excuse for not being all they can be. (Not to mention the obvious utility of having all the world’s information at your fingertips in an emergency situation).

How do we disentangle from the damage the culture of constant communication causes while simultaneously preserving all its benefits?

This is a question I’m actively exploring in my own life. I’ve deleted Snapchat, deleted Facebook, and am heavily considering deleting my Instagram. I’ve turned my phone screen black and white. I’ve de-powered my social media. I’ve unsubscribed from so many emails that I regularly reach Inbox Zero. I’ve even made my home screen look like this:

I’ve KonMari’d my phone. And it works — on average, I spend less than an hour a day on my phone.

At the same time, I love tech. Yesterday I bought a Sony a6300 mirrorless camera. I’m writing this on a 2017 15-inch Macbook Pro. My TV is an Epson projector that casts a 120-inch picture on my wall, connected to a 4K Apple TV. And that phone I turned black and white? It’s an iPhone X. I’m not on Verizon, and that’s probably a good thing, or I’d try to buy that little Palm phone they just released.

In short, I love tech — but I spend a lot of my time looking for ways to keep it in its place, too.

Until technology manufacturers start building humane design into their tech (which will happen sometime between five years from now and never), I’ll keep looking.