June 6th, 2008
08:55 PM ET

iPhone 2.0: Does the i stand for isolation?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/06/06/art.iphonedog.jpg caption="Have we gone iPhone crazy?"]

Bruce Weinstein,
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek

Eleven years ago, Apple Inc. began using the phrase "Think different" in its advertising campaign, and the phrase quickly became as iconic as "Where’s the beef?," "Got milk?," and other catchy slogans.

On June 9, the company will unveil iPhone 2.0, and everyone who hopes to be cool will want one. What could be wrong with that?
A lot, as it turns out.

Our society has devolved into a mass of turned-on, tuned-out, and plugged-in technophiles. Whatever distinction used to exist between public and private life is all but gone. Waiting on line at the grocery store or post office used to mean striking up a conversation with the person in front of you; it now involves blurting the intimate details of one’s love life into a cell phone for all to hear, or scrolling through a playlist for just the right song, or checking our e-mail.

There are three costs associated with this self-absorbed behavior...

The first is an opportunity cost. Our social fabric is in danger of being ripped to shreds as we swap electronic connection for personal relationships. The very nature of community depends upon us being connected to one another. Being civil means, or at least used to mean, valuing the relationships beyond our immediate circle of family and friends. If upon leaving home we immerse ourselves in idle chatter on the phone, listen to music nonstop at volume levels that preclude hearing the world around us, or read every piece of e-mail sent since the last time we checked, we miss the chance to make new friendships, renew old ones, or simply say hello to a stranger.

The second cost is to our psychological health. I don’t know about you, but my best ideas come when I’m brushing my teeth, putting on my shoes, or simply daydreaming. That’s right, daydreaming. A waste of time, you say? Not at all. To be creative is to have the freedom to dream, to let thoughts appear and evaporate, and to play. "But I’m too busy to play," you reply. Nonsense. Some of the time spent fidgeting with a cell phone or MP3 player is time we could put to better use, such as doing nothing at all. When our brains are constantly stimulated by electronic data, they are, of necessity, precluded from taking anything else in, such as the random thoughts that can be the genesis of great ideas. The nonstop avalanche of images and sounds from electronic media (among other distractions) is a barrier, not a portal, to creativity.

The third cost of our absorption in technology is the most serious of all: the possibility of an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that drivers who use a cell phone are four times more likely to be involved in an accident. The American Automobile Association has challenged that study, but it doesn’t really matter who is right. Imagine that your son or daughter has just gotten a driver’s license and is taking your car out for a spin. Would it matter to you if other drivers are yakking away on a cell phone while cruising next to, or heading toward, your child? Of course it would…and it should. Driving is challenging enough without having to worry about people around you being literally driven to distraction. We are, to borrow a phrase from the late author Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death.

Last year, New York State Senator Carl Kruger proposed a bill that would ban people from using cell phones, "personal data assistants," and other electronic devices while crossing the street in New York City and Buffalo. Many were outraged by the proposal, but it makes a lot of sense. When you’re arguing with your colleague or spouse on the phone, or reading the latest memo from the boss, you simply cannot be on guard against traffic. There is a limit to how much even the most skilled multitasker can accomplish.

None of what I am saying is a call to return to the days when people got their entertainment by huddling together in front of a radio (though that sounds pretty good, if you ask me). Nor is it an indictment of the telecommunications industry. After all, technology is morally neutral. It can be put to useful or harmful purposes.

My argument isn’t even with Apple itself. In fact, in my experience, Apple provides some of the best customer service around, and the technical support I received after switching to the Mac earlier this year was the friendliest and most helpful I’ve gotten in a long time.

If the introduction into our culture of several million more iPhones, along with the other devices on the market, results in even more self-absorption, less time to daydream, and more pedestrian and driver accidents, it won’t be the fault of Apple, or anyone else we care to blame.
It will be our own fault.

But it’s not too late to think different.

Editor's Note: This article is slightly modified from a version that appeared originally on BusinessWeek.com. For more from Bruce Weinstein, see: www.TheEthicsGuy.com.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Technology
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Interesting article. I guess too much of anything is not a good thing, but I find it fascinating all the new technology apple comes up with. Is it their fault that people don’t know how to prevent themselves from obsessing with it? To me this is like blaming McDonalds and other fast food restaurants for the obesity issue in this country. People have the free will to make choices, you can choose to not be on the phone all the time or have the common sense to pay attention when crossing the street. I don’t think the iphone 2.0 is a problem I think it’s exciting; my problem would be the price tag that’s going to be attached to it. Why does everything have to be $400?

    June 9, 2008 at 7:45 am |
  2. Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

    Thank you, Michele, for your kind words!

    Stay tune for more provocative articles from me on the AC36 blog.

    Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
    The Ethics Guy
    BusinessWeek.com's Ethics Columnist

    June 8, 2008 at 8:19 pm |
  3. James Dylan

    "Oh, these kids today." How often this has been said in every generation. Having read a few books which were written a couple hundred years ago this appears to be a similar argument against progress. As if mankind had previously reached some mythical height in our evolution and this marks the downfall. Your article is only the noticing of growing pains. Technological advances have always drawn people in and away from what previously held their attention; the radio was no different. I can hear the ancient parents now telling their children "quit drawing on our cave walls. Your wasting your time." Perhaps this is only separating those who are psychologically stronger, healthier or just a way to get away from the pains of thought. Not that this infatuation with technology is in any way the way I choose to live my life. I spend hours everyday reading, writing and immersed in thought, which has and can been equally as detrimental to my interactions with others. I can't even begin to count the times I've gone somewhere and upon arriving couldn't say how I got there. People think and day dream no matter what they are doing.

    June 7, 2008 at 8:44 pm |
  4. Melissa

    I left the iPod in the car when I went on my hike this morning. I listened to nature and even said a few hellos to people I encountered (provided they didn't have earbuds on). It was a nice break away from technology.

    I see how technology has turned this new generation of youngsters into self absorbed and socially inept people. They hide behind their video games, phones, etc. It's up to the parents how they want to raise their children. On that note, time to log off the computer!

    June 7, 2008 at 6:51 pm |
  5. Debbie, Louisiana

    We are completely co-dependent on this kind of technology. I think it's dehumanizing to some extent. I don't want to discuss my personal affairs within earshot of the general public and I don't want to deal with people who are so distracted by their iphones or even regular cell phones that they can't chew gum and walk at the same time. I think we're becoming social isolationists.

    By the way...is that a Japanese Chin in the photo? Too cute.

    June 6, 2008 at 9:43 pm |
  6. Michele, Oregon

    An excellent editorial!

    There have been many times in various situations I have answered someone before I realized that they had earpiece on talking to someone else on the phone.

    We need to be more countercultural. Every segment of society is in need here. We need more solitude (places where we cannot be reached for our own sanity and reflection/prayer) and to offer personalism (even just a smile in passing) in this world.

    There need to be more voices like Mr. Weinstein in the secular world.

    June 6, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  7. Annie Kate

    Even inside families these devices can be isolating with kids on the ipod or their phone all the time and even the parents doing the same thing. Some children I know say they feel abandoned even though they have 2 parents in the house. While I doubt that anyone will give up their precious technology we do need to learn how to use it in moderation. Moderation – for an American that is a really different thought.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 6, 2008 at 9:17 pm |