Wednesday night the New America Foundation hosted a debate on the resolution “Your Smartphone has Hijacked Your Life.” It was a rich discussion and very well moderated, wide-ranging over a number of the social and personal costs and benefits we derive from these miraculous devices, so well worth watching. Say, on the ustream app on your phone.

Throughout the discussion, though, one particular thread of an idea seemed to reemerge from time to time in various forms, and understandably so, as it is perhaps one of the distinguishing features of life in the smartphone era.

Smartphones are always, and they are everywhere.

The evening opened with this reflection from Andrés Martinez about his recent President’s Day getaway with his son to Mexico:

On one of the nights after my 8-year old son had gone to sleep I sat out on the balcony, listened to the waves crashing, and caught up on Facebook, which I hadn’t done in a while…I felt more connected, paradoxically, with friends and family, on vacation far away because I had this time carved out to catch up. And because I’m kind of a geek at heart, and have a hard time kind of shutting down while on vacation, I also on Sunday checked my twitter feed and the New York Times app to get the latest on immigration reform debates…I felt I had watched the Sunday talk shows myself, sitting there in Cancun.

Then at the 54-minute mark this exchange occurred between NAF’s Martinez (AM) and Marvin Ammori (MA), the venerable Daniel Sarewitz (DS) of CSPO and Yelp’s Miriam Warren (MW):

AM: Marvin, have you taken a break from your smartphone in the last year?

MA: Not consciously, but I don’t check it all the time.

AM: Have you gone 24-hours when you’ve been totally cut off?

MA: No, I’m not sure why I would want to be. I mean, I read my news generally through twitter, I check my e-mail occasionally, and in fact, because I have my smartphone with me, is why I can take a break from the rest of the world. I can go to Miami for a few days and no one knows I’m gone because I can check my e-mail…

DS: People never took vacations before, that’s a new thing?

MA: No, I’m not saying people can’t—but I couldn’t have as easily taken a vacation when I took this vacation had I—

DS: You could have but the expectations would have been different. The expectation would have been: you were on vacation. …

AM: Miriam, have you been unplugged, for any considerable period of time in recent years—camping, or a conscious break?

MW: I haven’t been camping in a few years either so no on that one, but I think I agree with Marvin that I haven’t really wanted to, I think the other piece is that there are ways in which my digital life is broken out, and I feel I can take a break from my work e-mail but still catch up on the articles on my flipboard, which I want to do.

The alwaysness is the gamechanger. The constant availability closes us off to experience, because just by being open to the Internet world, as mediated through this device, there is a part of our attention always tethered there in our hand, on our hip, in our pocket, out of sight but never quite out of mind. What is particularly vexing about our relationship with this device is how stubbornly it resists any moderate solution. We may try not to be that anti-social teenager, face glued to screen, but the screen isn’t the root of the issue. It’s the very presence of choice.

We could choose not to look at our smartphone in social situations, but for that matter we could pull it out, just for a quick sec, just to check. We could turn off the data connection if we were feeling particularly rebellious, but we can always turn it back on. The device itself is a portal to a world of many magnificent things, and countless comfortable mundanities, it is connection to our spouses, our children, our friends, our family. It has cats! It calls to us, even when we resist or are just otherwise occupied. It keeps us open and available to that World Wide interconnection that you’re using to read this very sentence.

He knows what phones are for.

He knows what phones are for. Flickr

One thing this constant availability does is run together all the moments of our life that make up a day, and make them all just a little bit more the same. Most of us spend large portions of our day in front of computers with countless sites and attractions just clicks away. When we stand up and walk to the elevator we may no longer experience empty time. We can just pick back up where we left off, texting, tweeting, checking. Once in the elevator, if it stops and someone else gets in we don’t have to engage or acknowledge. We could talk, or we could continue, start if we haven’t already, texting, tweeting, checking. If we put the phone in our pocket to walk outside it might come out again on the sidewalk. It definitely will on the train platform. And it could practically leap out by itself once we’re actually seated next to another, strange, human being. Comfort. Familiarity. Choice. Fun.

Somewhere along the line, though, we might find that all this choice, all this fun, all this openness has made our world not bigger, not richer, but just a little bit smaller. We always have more to choose from, but fewer opportunities for actual choices. Choices can be different from selections, after all, and in a world where every phase of life comes in the same texture, when can we have an actual moment to choose?

These are complex questions, and issues many of us are working through day by day, whether or not we are consciously thinking about it. As we live more of our lives connected to devices, and the devices become less and less obtrusive (see Google Glass), we’ll live these changes. It seems worthwhile to note that the gentleman sitting next to me on Wednesday night, at this event of all events, pulled out his smartphone as the evening got underway.

He never looked up.