It’s undeniable that computer technology, and the ease of information and communication access it enables, can be addictive. Comparisons to classically addictive materials, then, like cigarettes, is to be expected, and in some ways quite apt. As Ian Bogost lays it out in The Cigarette of This Century (via Shawn Blanc):
Today, all our wives and husbands have Blackberries or iPhones or Android devices or whatever–the progeny of those original 950 and 957 models that put data in our pockets. Now we all check [our] email (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or…) compulsively at the dinner table, or the traffic light. Now we all stow our devices on the nightstand before bed, and check them first thing in the morning. We all do. It’s not abnormal, and it’s not just for business. It’s just what people do. Like smoking in 1965, it’s just life.
But there’s an important — crucial — difference between cigarettes and smartphones, or any mobile devices (one of many differences, like the obvious one that cigarettes can kill you and those around you). Or more accurately, a contrast between the relationship smokers have to smoking and the one most of us have to our mobile devices.
Smoking is a social activity. You can smoke and talk. Cigarettes are shared. The most common icebreaker between strangers I hear is “Can I have a cigarette?” or “Got a light?” Smoking is something you can do in conjunction with another activity.
But you don’t text and talk (you might think you can, but for the person trying to have a conversation with you, it’s frustrating). Checking email or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram is not something done while simultaneously interacting with the people around you. It’s an alternative, a withdrawal, an escape. Digital connection instead of immediate social connection. Smartphones — not their nature, but our prevailing use of them — is individual, antisocial (paradoxically), and disconnected (from our immediate surroundings).
As Marshall McLuhan observed, the cigarette enhances a sense of poise and calm by giving the smoker a prop, reducing social awkwardness. It retrieves tribal practices of ritual and security and obsolesces loneliness by giving everyone something in common to do, such as asking for a light.
In the same way, a smartphone is a prop. But instead of a prop that encourages interaction — asking for a light, socializing in the smoking area — it encourages distraction, avoidance, pulling further into one’s self. Devices like smartphones pull us out of the moment constantly, in ways addictions like cigarettes only achieve occasionally (smokers excuse themselves to smoke, but is that worse than constant peeping with no excuse?). Cigarettes are harmful to our longterm health. Smartphones are harmful to everyday face-to-face communication.