@nd.edu: Thoreau wouldn’t own a smartphone

Author: Tara Hunt ’12

Tara Hunt

Long before technology wrapped its gnarled fingers around man and became its master, Henry David Thoreau wisely said, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

Decades and now five iPhone versions later, his sentiments could not carry any more truth. We have entered an age where instead of holding our smartphones, our smartphones have a chokehold on us.

Perhaps this comes as a result of the instant gratification generation that wants news, information, music and conversation now. Perhaps we are so inundated with communication that we can’t bear the sound of silence. Or perhaps since we are just told over and over, by commercials, ads, television shows and even our own friends that we need the next smartphone/iPad/gadget, we just do it because it seems inevitable.

Whatever it is, it needs to stop.

We’ve entered an era where we’re expected to be constantly accessible. Gone is the age of the 9 to 5 workday. Instead, we’re always plugged in. We have headphones lodged in our ears while we’re driving; we’re texting as we walk; we’re answering emails on our Blackberries as we sit in a bathroom stall.
Why are we incapable of moments of nothingness?

We’re a generation plagued by a fear of missing out — FOMOs, if you will. And this FOMO epidemic means we don’t turn off our phones. We sleep with them on our nightstands. We wake up and immediately check email and The New York Times app on our iPhones. We check our phones every five to seven minutes, just to make sure we have service so people can reach us if they need us.

But why? Are we really that desperate for connections with one another?

What’s ironic is that the technology meant to unite us is actually ripping us apart. Texting takes the place of real conversations. We can’t enjoy in-person exchanges because we’re too busy fiddling with our phones to truly listen to one another. We don’t have conversations with strangers on the train because we all have our ears plugged up with iPods or we’re engrossed in a mesmerizing game of Angry Birds. We’re constantly ensuring our isolation.

And instead of debating with one another, when controversial questions come up, we each whip out our phones and Google it.

First to find the best Google hit wins? Having access to instant answers is not quite the same as brainstorming and laughing together over errors or delving into your thoughts and personal philosophies—even if they are wrong. Having all this information at our fingertips hinders our creativity and steals the opportunity for us to really think, reflect and discuss.

We may be a smarter generation — a wealth of random facts, concepts and knowledge — but we’re certainly not a wiser one. We have all but eliminated the time and need for personal reflection. We don’t need to formulate our own ideas or judgments because we always have other people’s in our back pocket —literally.

Once again, Thoreau was ahead of his time when he said, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

Our rapidly advancing technology is impressive — that much is uncontested — but is it improving our lives? Is an unsociable and shallow life void of real human interaction or personal reflection what we want?

Perhaps we should all take a step toward Thoreau and enter our own wilderness, not necessarily one with trees and a cabin, but at least one without smartphones.

Tara Hunt is a senior at Notre Dame and was the Notre Dame Magazine summer 2011 intern. She likes her phones dumb and her people smart. Email her at thunt5@nd.edu.