The Social Contract and Your Phone

Why Are You in a Long-Term Committed Relationship with Your Cell Phone, and How Do You Regain Control? As far back as 2002, Pew Research began polling that was geared to find out how many people carried a cell phone. This seems to detail the beginning of general acceptance as they found 62% of Americans already had […]

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Why Are You in a Long-Term Committed Relationship with Your Cell Phone, and How Do You Regain Control?

As far back as 2002, Pew Research began polling that was geared to find out how many people carried a cell phone. This seems to detail the beginning of general acceptance as they found 62% of Americans already had and carried a mobile device by this time. Elder Millennials (generally considered to be those born from 1981-89) are defined by their experience of growing up before the mobile phone—or even the internet—was endemic, and inevitably adopting its use in adulthood. Many people of this time adopted the use of a cell phone only to eschew it for periods before becoming inexorably tied to it.

So yes, there were millions of people who took their first foray into carrying a cell phone, just to decide that it was not worth the ongoing investment and entanglement. Now, many of these people were also still tied to a pager (which amazingly is still in use today! You may know a Doctor, Nurse, or Radiology Technician who carries one). This was the age when Motorola and Nokia dominated the market, the Blackberry had recently come on the scene and cell phones, in general, were not yet smart. You may remember a little pink alien that accidentally left its communicator on earth giving rise to PrimeCo. PrimeCo—which started the CDMA network in 1996—and Cingular Wireless were both originally affiliated with Bell Atlantic. PrimeCo was succeeded by Verizon Wireless, and Cingular later bought out AT&T Wireless and assumed their name.

If you owned a cell phone in this bygone era, you were likely paying about $1.00 per minute for “talk-time” and were probably made to upgrade to a Blackberry device if you were using the new corporate communication tool known as e-mail.

Introducing the Smartphone

While there is still some fanboy controversy over which iPhone launched the Smartphone Era, June 29, 2007, officially launched the device that the late Steve Jobs’ presciently said would “reinvent the phone”. By 2011 Pew Research reports that 35% of US adults owned a smartphone, and that figure rose to 81% by 2019.

Before FaceTime or even video recording of any kind on a phone, the first iPhone brought real internet browsing to a handheld device. Employing the still newish tech of GPS, you could look at a map of where you were. And you could type on a QWERTY soft screen, which would disappear when not typing to give you a full-screen experience. I don’t know if you ever became a T9—or Text on 9-keys—expert, but until the original iPhone, mobile text communication was limited to that, the Blackberry, or of course the 2003 T-Mobile Sidekick which featured a physical QWERTY keyboard hidden behind the screen that would slide down for text input.

The iPod had already knocked out Sony’s Walkman as the digital mobile music device for the new century (and yes, my Creative Labs Nomad Muvo 128MB music player still takes up museum space in a box in my closet with RCA cables and a coaxial BNC cable). The Smartphone now effectively nixed the Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor, and the HP and Compaq Windows CE Personal Digital Assistants—PDAs. 

This ushered in a new era in which we could turn to one device as our phone, Rolodex, calendar, music player, internet scroller, map book, camera, and personal computer. It was a literal game-changer. And it is nearly impossible to get by in modern life without owning one of these for keeping up with work and family.

I Buzz, You Buzz, We All Buzz… Even When We Don’t

Everyone has reached into their pocket, swearing they felt the familiar vibration of their phone, only to find out it was all in their head. Are we addicted? Of course, we are. 

According to Trevor Haynes and Rebecca Clements of Harvard University, around 73% of people, as of 2018, claim to experience a mild sense of panic if they cannot immediately locate their smartphone. Furthermore, they state that most of us have experienced the sensation that our phone is buzzing in our pocket at times when it is not even there.

All these innovations that gave us a real All-in-One device did not come without a cost. Of course, you can point to the fact that everyone is supposed to shell out what was the cost of a once-in-a-decade computer station every 1-3 years now. And on top of that, we pay an exorbitant monthly access fee, just to use our expensive devices and their unlimited “free” services. But the psychological cost is one that we are still trying to quantify.

Variable Reward Schedules

Anticipation, Action, and Reward are the three basic steps to the dopamine systems in the human brain. These systems have developed naturally over eons to encourage behavior that will help us survive in an often inhospitable environment. These help us to think, remember, and pay attention. They are also key to keeping our heart beating, reproduction, and even lactation.

“Variable reward schedules were introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s. In his experiments, he found that mice respond most frequently to reward-associated stimuli when the reward was administered after a varying number of responses, precluding the animal’s ability to predict when they would be rewarded. Humans are no different[.]” -Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time

Social media apps similarly take advantage of this system to gamble. They use a system to maximize our engagement, which revs up the neurons in our brains to reward us for our behavior. The same Harvard article quoted above goes on to explain that the criteria for notifications from various services expand over time. In other words, they employ programmers to create learning salesmen programs that will not quit and will not leave your home until you sign your name on the dotted line.

A Possible Solution —Mindfulness

Recognizing that we are purposefully being taken advantage of maybe the first step in counteracting this situation. The apps on our phones are geared to make money. If we are not paying them directly, they are selling our attention to someone else. 

With an incessant salesperson—read A.I. nemesis—constantly assaulting our senses and learning from our actions, what are we supposed to do?

If we maintain that we need to carry a smartphone on us, we must begin to recognize the feelings we have toward them and the actions we take from a moment to moment. Once we realize that the deck is stacked against us, we can start to make choices to counteract that. We can turn off notifications, condition ourselves to stop reacting to the buzzes and dings, and above all, question whether looking at our phone is helping us to accomplish our goals at the moment or is it taking advantage of our time.

Connect with Joey Horn on LinkedIn and Crunchbase.

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