Is Our Fear of Smartphones Overblown?

Clip courtesy of the always amusing Pessimists Archive.

During interviews for Digital Minimalism, I’m frequently asked whether I think our culture’s concerns about new technologies like smartphones and social media represent a fleeting moral panic.

The argument goes something like this: There are many technologies that were once feared but that we now consider to be relatively tame, from rock music, to the radio, to the telegraph famously lamented by Thoreau. Isn’t our concern about today’s tech just more of the same?

This is a genuinely interesting question that’s worth some careful unpacking. My main issue with this approach to the issues surrounding smartphones and social media is that it implicitly builds on the following logical formulation:

A. There exist technologies that concerned us when new, but that turned out to be harmless.

B. Smartphones and social media are a new technology that concerns us.

C. It follows that we will later come to believe that smartphones and social media are harmless.

This syllogism, of course, is flawed. To make it correct, the existential quantifier in proposition A would need instead to be universal, as in every new technology that concerns us ends up tame.

But we know that this isn’t the case as there are many examples of technologies that sparked concerns that were ultimately validated. Think, for example, of nuclear weapons, unregulated industrial food safety, and television, which really did end up massively changing the American social fabric in the ways critics warned.

The real question then is what type of concerning technology are smartphones and social media: harmful or harmless? I don’t think we have a clear answer yet, but there’s enough evidence that it might fall into the former category that we can’t simply dismiss it without further interrogation.

Such nonchalance would be illogical.