In the long lost year of 2011, I managed to graduate college without owning a smartphone. Even then, four years after the birth of the iPhone, I was not yet an unreasonable outlier. All my immediate friends owned flip phones. The pressure to join the future had not yet overtaken us.
We texted, we talked, and we went whole days without considering, very much, the phones in our pockets. No one dipped down every 10 seconds to tap their screens. All the small black pieces of plastic could do was communicate with one another, take fuzzy photos, and churn through pixelated websites none of us would bother visiting. Our attention spans were whole, resilient. The internet, with its tendrils of early social media, remained locked behind the laptop screens in our dormitory rooms, bookending days lived elsewhere.
I think a lot about this era as the 2010s draw to a close, a decade that will remembered for its seismic political upheaval: kicking off with the first black president, ending with a former reality TV star and nativist con man in the White House. Yet the 2010s weren’t merely the Trump decade. They were also dominated, from start to finish, by a single piece of technology that has obliterated the promise of the internet and corrupted human interaction. The smartphone is to the 2010s what cigarettes were to much of the 20th century, a ubiquitous and ruinous marker of the zeitgeist.
By now, you know what the smartphone has wrought. You are alive, after all. You are probably reading this article on one. Few technologies have so rapidly consumed every demographic, every age, every cultural and sociological setting, urban and rural, rich and poor. In the late 2000s, we allowed a few corporations to persuade us that this advanced, alien technology – assembled via de facto slave labor in Asia – was essential to human existence. We readily bought in, condensing our lives behind the sleek glass. The scroll hooked us like a drug, triggering the exact right loci in our brains; suddenly, we could never be bored again, doped by endless Facebook and Instagram feeds, retreating from unnecessary conversation or thought into an infinity of trivia. The internet never left us.